Spector of Christmas Past
In the original sleevenotes to A Christmas Gift For You, Phil Spector writes: “Because Christmas is so American it is therefore time to take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today.” Of course, that would be Spector’s own trademark Wall of Sound backing his own teenage artists. It could have been a forgettable indulgence, but instead it has become an essential thread in the fabric of the season; a touchstone for everything we consider to be great about Christmas pop songs. Strange, then, that it was almost throttled at birth.
Eight months in the making, the Yuletide classics were delivered with boundless joie de vivre, but the record surfaced at exactly the wrong time. On November 22, 1963, the American public was in no mood to deck the halls with boughs of holly. “I thought it was a great idea to do a rock’n’roll Christmas album,” Spector’s arranger Jack Nitzsche told Goldmine magazine in 1988, “but the album never really took off. I think some of that had to do with… the Kennedy assassination.” With extraordinary bad luck, the album was released on the very day those shots rang out in Texas.
The decades since have offered opportunity for re-evaluation. The Beach Boys’ creative fulcrum, Brian Wilson, who was at one point haunted by perceived secret messages from Spector, now rates A Christmas Gift For You as his favourite album of all time. It’s easy to see why: the record is suffused with the same youthful energy and optimism Wilson brought to his own work. The Ronettes in particular lay down definitive versions of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Sleigh Ride”.
Elsewhere, Darlene Love – better known two decades on for playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies, but back then an occasional Blue Jeans and Crystals singer — chips in with four songs, including the Spector-penned “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. This song visits the familiar theme that Christmas won’t be the same without a beloved one. Love’s pleas are laced with obligatory bells and a blaring sax solo that would fit very nicely on a Wizzard record a few Christmases later.
The song’s timeless appeal is further evidenced by the fact that Love still performs it every year on Letterman’s Christmas show. And there surely isn’t a more iconic festive anthem than The Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, a tune burned deep in the national consciousness, and one that Bruce Springsteen also had a smash hit with in 1985.
Then of course there’s The Wrecking Crew, LA’s legendary session collective, including Hal Blaine on thunderous drums, Sonny Bono, presumably wielding a bewildering assortment of bells, on percussion, and Leon Russell — currently enjoying a new lease of life and overdue fame with Elton John — rolling out the piano. These rock’n’roll builders constructed Spector’s Wall of Sound architecture, their massed ranks producing towering sonics which were then filtered through echo chambers to produce the sound Spector heard in his head. It works perfectly for these songs, conjuring a shimmering effect, like tinsel on the tree or fresh snow on a glistening morning.
A Christmas Gift For You finally achieved some success almost a decade later, when Apple reissued it in 1972, but its revised sleeve may have hampered further progress: it doesn’t require the gift of hindsight to be terrified by the cover photo of Spector, wild-eyed and dishevelled behind a monstrous Santa beard.
Back in 1963, “Silent Night” wraps up the festivities with a younger, more serene, Spector reciting a charming message of thanks to everyone who worked on the record, and to us, the public, for letting them all spend Christmas with us. You could do worse, of course. You could be spending this Christmas with Phil.