Wednesday, December 25, 2013

TMFW 16 - Bing Crosby and David Bowie Make an Unlikely Holiday Classic

From 1965 to 1977, Bing Crosby made an annual TV Christmas Special.  In September 1977, he recorded "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas," an English-themed special that imagined Crosby as a guest at the estate of his relative "Sir Percival Crosby," where he welcomed various visitors (including Twiggy!) to talk about the season and sing Christmas songs.  The special debuted November 30, 1977.  It was the last that Crosby made; in fact, he had died suddenly in October of that year and the special was aired posthumously, introduced by his widow. 

The most famous piece to come out of Bing's special that year (and perhaps any year) was his collaboration with David Bowie.  This Washington Post article from 2006 tells the story nicely: Bowie was asked to be on the program (he agreed after the producers agreed to air his video for the song "Heroes" as part of the show), and they expected that he and Bing would sing a duet on the song "Little Drummer Boy."  But Bowie complained that he did not like the song and didn't want to sing it, and so with very short notice the show's producers had to find a Plan B.  Working quickly in the basement of the studio where the special was taped, they wrote a new song in just over an hour.  After less than an hour of rehearsal, Bowie and Crosby taped the now-famous duet version of "Little Drummer Boy," with the brand newly-written "Peace on Earth" over the top.

Bowie would later say that "[i]t was the most bizarre experience," and that Crosby "looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool...there was just nobody home at all, you know?"  For his part, Crosby called Bowie "a clean cut kid and a real fine asset to the show" in an interview a few days after the taping.

Since the show aired in 1977, the song has become a Christmastime staple, with regular rotation on Christmas radio and (back when they actually played videos) repeat broadcast on MTV and VH1.  We're all the better off for it. 

Here's the whole show on Youtube (Bowie's piece starts just after the 10 minute mark; his awkwardly-inserted "Heroes" video comes in at 31 minutes).

Bonus fact:  For no apparent reason at all, in 2010 Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly made an almost shot-for-shot remake of the whole Bowie-Crosby bit (at least until the end).  That same year, Jack Black and Jason Segel did an adapted, animated version.

Bonus fact 2:  Bing Crosby is known now mostly for "White Christmas" and for being "one of those old-timey singers," but he put up some remarkable numbers over his career.  As handily collected in the book "A Pocket Full of Dreams" by Gary Giddins:
* Bing has more studio recordings than any other performer in history (including 400 more than Frank Sinatra).
* "White Christmas" made an appearance on the record charts for 19 of 20 holiday seasons, from 1942 through 1961. 
*  Though the distinction is a bit dubious in the pre-Billboard, nascent record industry days, Crosby has had more songs make the charts, and more to hit number 1, than any other recording artist in history. 

Bonus Fact 3:  From this list, we see that "TV Christmas Specials" were a rather common thing in the 1960s and 70s; during his run from 1965 to 1977, in various years Crosby was in competition with Perry Como, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, the Carpenters, The Captain and Tennille, John Denver and the Muppets, Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Hope, and Dean Martin.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TMFW 15 - Christmast​ime's "Scary Ghost Stories"

In the Andy Williams classic Christmas song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," one verse promises some specific activities that will be part of the celebration:
There'll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow;
There'll be scary ghost stories,
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
I (and you) have heard that song a million times. but until this year I (and you?) never focused on the promise of "scary ghost stories."  It caught me off guard earlier this month - "GHOST stories?  really?" - and so I took to Google to see what I could learn. 
Other people have wondered the same thing.  As it turns out, Christmastime ghost stories are a long-observed tradition, going back to at least Victorian England.  As the linked article notes, British author Jerome K. Jerome wrote in an 1890s ghost story anthology that "whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” and “nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters."  The most famous Christmastime ghost story, of course, is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but it turns out that there are many, many more.  And the tradition continues in England today; the BBC traditionally runs a ghost story adaptation around the holidays, including a series of original stories from the 1970s that have been popular on DVD.
A long and thorough history of Christmas ghost stories, from the olden days to now, is here in two parts (1, 2).
Bonus fact:  Andy Williams is not the only Christmas singer to note the tradition of ghost stories.  Kate Bush, in her song "December Will Be Magic Again," notes that during the Christmas season people will "light up the candle lights to conjure Mr. Wilde in to the silent night."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

TMFW 14 - Lorde's Mega-Song "Royals" was Inspired by a 1976 Picture of George Brett (Really!)

If you pay attention to the pop music charts, or (purely hypothetically) if you have a daughter in grammar school, you no doubt are familiar with Lorde's giant song "Royals," which reached number 1 on the Billboard chart in October and stayed there for 9 weeks. Lorde is just 17 years old, and hails from New Zealand.  The song is a commentary on modern musical priorities, with lyrics that criticize obsession with "Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece // jet planes, islands, [and] tigers on a gold leash."  
It is almost self-evident, then, that the song must have been inspired by an almost 40 year-old picture of George Brett.   In an interview earlier this year with VH1, the singer talked about what moved her to write the song.  In a "this must be a joke, right?" soundbite, she explained: "I had this image from the National Geographic of this dude signing baseballs, he was a baseball player, and his shirt said 'Royals.'"
After the interview made the rounds, The Internet found a picture of George Brett from the July 1976 issue of National Geographic, and the magazine recently confirmed that it "appears to be" the only picture of a Royal that has ever graced its pages.  The magazine tracked down and interviewed the photographer, who seemed amused (though not, apparently, humbled) by his photo's odd turn as muse.  
The news about Lorde's inspiration has given some new momentum to the long-circulating rumor that The Black Crowes' 1990 hit "She Talks to Angels" is about a love triangle involving Chili Davis and Wally Joyner. (ba-dum ching)
BONUS FACT:  In another terrific example of "unlikely, whimsical inspiration," the (one-and-done?) band The Pizza Underground recently cut a "demo" that is available for streaming on Bandcamp.  Who and what is The Pizza Underground, you ask?  Well, they are of course a Macauley Culkin-lead psuedo cover band that re-imagines Velvet Underground songs, but with a pizza focus.  Let your brain soak that in for a minute.  The Pizza Underground's demo includes snippets from their songs "Papa John Says," (original) "I'm Beginning to Eat the Slice," (original)  "I'm Waiting for Delivery Man," (original) "Cheese Days," (though technically that one is by Nico rather than the Velvet Underground), and "Take a Walk on the Wild Slice" (and that one's Lou Reed).  Check out their Tumblr for some inspired art.  Or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.  Or watch the demo as a soundtrack to looped footage of young Macaulay waving, cut with an 80s-esque pizza commercial snippet.  The whole thing is pointless and bizarre and wonderful.  It's exactly what I would hope Macauley Culkin is doing with his time cheese days - er, I mean these days. 
BONUS FACT 2:  In addition to her dominance of the Billboard Hot 100, Lorde also topped the Billboard Alternative charts for seven weeks.  She was, unbelievably, the first female solo artist to do so since June, 1996, when Tracy Bonham hit number 1 for three weeks with her song "Mother Mother."  Bonham's song was already off the chart when Lorde was born in November of that year.
BONUS FACT 3:  "These Days" was first recorded by Nico, but it was written by Jackson Browne when he was just 16 years oldHis version is just fantastic.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TMFW 13 - Number 1, Then a Bullet

The Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963 went to a recording that was, at that time, the fastest selling record in history.  It had sold 1.2 million copies in its first two weeks after release, and 7.5 million albums overall, which was astonishing for its time. Time magazine opened up a profile on the record (content for subscribers only - boo) with the following anecdotes: 
A leading Chicago store reported sales as "phenomenal"—the hottest selling item in 14 years. In Atlanta a distributor was going out to greet plane shipments at 2:30 in the morning. A Dallas distributor was biting his nails waiting for his order of 30,000 copies. In Washington another distributor crowed: "It's beyond our entire experience, and we've been in business 15 years!" Said a Miamian: "Like people are going crazy, man! The demand exceeds our supply by the thousands—I don't mean hundreds. I mean thousands!" Said a Boston record man: "I'm not even answering my phone any more."
The record was so ubiquitous that a copy is sitting in our basement now, having come over when we inherited my wife's grandparents' very limited record collection. 
The performer on the record was in his mid-20s when it came out, and he went, in the span of only a couple of months, from an unknown nightclub act in Greenwich Village to an international star.  He was regularly featured on national radio and television (including performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the Andy Williams Show), and in addition to the writeup in Time he was profiled in Life magazine.  The record was so well-known that a co-performer appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth, where a panel of celebrities sought to ferret out which of three women had the distinctive voice of the "real" performer.     
Then, instantly, it was all over.
If you've clicked any of those links above, or if GMail showed you a preview of the linked videos, you've already figured out that the performer in question was Vaughn Meader, who became an overnight sensation with his impression of President Kennedy.  His record-setting (pun intended) record was The First Family (RdioSpotify), which is a (pretty tame, to modern ears) satire of the Kennedys' life.  Meader allegedly had made $500,000 from the record and associated appearances.  JFK bought 100 copies for his staff.  Kennedy opened an appearance to great effect by saying "Vaughn Meader is busy tonight, so I came myself."  RFK (who Meader also voiced) reported that he once had trouble scheduling a meeting over the telephone because the person on the other end of the line thought it was Meader rather than Kennedy himself.     
After Kennedy was assassinated, Meader's record was almost instantly pulled from shelves and existing inventory was destroyed.  Meader had become so closely associated with the president that no one wanted to even see him - his scheduled appearances were cancelled and his attempts to move to more broad, non-political humor flopped.  After some obligatory dark times, in which Meader experimented with drugs, spent or gave away his money, and suffered various failed relationships, he moved back to Maine and started answering only to his given name of Abbott Meader.  When he died in 2004, his obituaries naturally focused on his very brief period of stardom, and each took an almost pitying notice his sudden fall.  
Meader's whole story is well-told in writeups herehere, and here, by better writers than me.  But a couple of parts are too good to leave at the links:
**  When Kennedy was shot, Meader had just gotten off of an airplane in Milwaukee, and got in a cab to go to his scheduled appearance.  The taxi driver apparently recognized him, and asked "did you hear about Kennedy getting shot in Dallas?"  Meader, who was used to getting pitched with joke ideas, answered "no, how does it go?"
**  There are several different versions of the punchline, but Meader was so well-known that allegedly Lenny Bruce opened his first post-assassination show by coming out, pausing for effect, and then saying "Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked."  The joke is said to have brought the house down  (A different version of the punchline has Bruce saying "I guess they'll need two graves at Arlington - one for Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader.")
**  Meader's impersonation was so well-known that modern day JFKs - think Mayor Quimby, or just imagine JFK in your own head - sound well closer to Meader's impersonation than they do to the president himself.
BONUS FACT:  Meader attempted a comeback in the early-70s with a satire album about the return of Jesus to modern-day America called The Second Coming.  As you might imagine, it did not go over very well.  Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can hear the record, in five parts, here: 12345.