Hey all, Ernie here with an entry from David Buck! As you might have noticed, we’re in the middle of a holiday thing we’re calling the Twelve Things of Tedium. I covered things you watch earlier this week, and David’s got things for you to listen to today. Read on!
Today in Tedium: Some people send Christmas cards or fruit cakes to their friends and family during the holidays. Back in the ’60s, The Beatles took things a step further with specially recorded messages for their fans. That tradition of music has always been a vital part of holiday celebrations, but it goes well beyond the traditional melodies and carols to which many of us are accustomed. Each year, humorous Christmas songs and sketches find their way to the radio and television airwaves, but rather than make a mockery of the season, they tend to liven things up a bit. In today’s Tedium, we’re continuing our celebration of Christmas in this installment of the Twelve Things of Tedium. You can put away your book of traditional Christmas carols and tell the other Carolers to go home because this issue is all about twisted tunes, merry melodies, and at least two other types of bizarre Christmas music. Happy musical holidays! — David @ Tedium
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Bob Rivers, early in his radio career. (via BobRivers.com)
How a radio DJ turned holiday song parodies into a modern institution
Parodying traditional or early 20th Century Christmas Carols takes on many forms and genres, but find their way into the world of comedy and novelty far more often than not. Take Da Yoopers’ “Rusty Chevrolet” or “Walking in my Winter Underwear” by Stan Boreson & Doug Setterberg for example. You can probably tell just by the titles which songs they parody (“Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” respectively). There are a vast library of similar songs that range from extremely forgettable to the type of novelties listeners grow tired of hearing year after year. Thankfully, the music of The Bob Rivers Comedy Corp does not fall into that category.
Bob Rivers worked as an on-air radio personality for some time before deciding to branch out into the world of holiday-themed song parodies. And when he did, he dove right into the deep end with both quality and quantity.
The number of dedicated Christmas comedy albums released by The Bob Rivers Comedy Corp (also occasionally known as Bob Rivers Twisted Radio or just Bob Rivers) between 1987 and 2002 is honestly quite impressive. Kicking off with Twisted Christmas, Rivers mostly focused on tackling traditional Christmas Carols with a gentle mockery of modern Christmas celebration trends from dressing up like Santa to mall shopping, and the rigors of holiday preparation. It dives into more surreal territory with “A Visit from St. Nicholson”—where Jack Nicholson shows up and has an uncomfortable conversation with the narrator as well as an original tune “The Chimney Song,” a tune about something smells funny in the chimney. Listeners can draw their own conclusions from the song.
I am Santa Claus followed a few years later, this time parodying the Black Sabbath classic “Ironman” following the misadventures of a heavy metal Santa Claus. It’s exactly what it sounds like, with an accompanying music video. More traditional parodies about the tedium of the holiday season abound on this album and this record has the somewhat dubious honor of containing a parody of those old Motel 6 ads, where they Leavin’ the Light On for you.
More Twisted Christmas is more of the same, with some memorable parodies and a healthy mix of traditional and modern music, culminating in raucous interpretation of “The Nutcracker Suite” that should be heard to be believed, no butts about it. There’s a strange Led Zeppelin parody here, too, about sleigh riding.
Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire features a delightful parody of “The Christmas Song” complete with The Bagdasarian Effect being used in the song. This record focuses more on pop culture and less on the Christmas experience, sort of marking a trend that would continue through the next record.
White Trash Christmas—the final entry of the series to date—tried to capture more contemporary aspects of 2002’s pop culture scene, to varying degrees of success, complete with commentary on Eminem and Ozzy Osbourne.
As I listen to Twisted Christmas each year, it seems as if it basically set the tone for many Christmas parodies to come after it, especially in the age of YouTube—where a quick search reveals a goldmine of song parodies that probably wouldn’t be as prevalent without the influence of Bob Rivers and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Maybe it’s just me, but it does seem like the influence extends quite far, especially for musicians like me who still find a bit of inspiration in these albums from time-to-time. The albums are worth their weight in laughter and are pretty easy to track down. As for Rivers himself, though may be retired from radio, he’s still doing a version of his radio show at his website and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Christmas doesn’t always have to be green
Christmas carols have always been ripe for parody, but original Christmas music—when it isn’t hymnal or a love song—is often funny and irreverent, playing off of the tropes commonly associated with the commercialization of the holiday. Other times it can be wacky, surreal, or present an alternate take on a traditional tale.
They Might be Giants did it with a hybrid Christmas/cheatin’ song on their second album called “Santa’s Beard.” Barenaked Ladies made a half-serious, mostly hilarious Christmas album, Barenaked for the Holidays. “Weird Al” Yankovic has two holiday tunes “Christmas at Ground Zero” and “The Night Santa Went Crazy.” Even Cheech & Chong had a Christmas bit (“Santa Claus and his Old Lady”). Some of these take an irreverent approach (Al’s songs certainly fall into this category), while others are tinged with punk, like that time Weird Paul Petroskey sang, “You Broke the Face off a $10 Santa Claus”. But the most interesting Christmas bit I’ve come across over the years is Stan Freberg’s “Green Chris$tma$.”
Originally released by Capitol Records in 1958, the comedy skit is the centerpiece of a 45 RPM single that has some important things to say about the holiday season, laced with Freberg’s trademark satire and wit. The B-side of the single features short takes on a few traditional Christmas carols.
In the piece, Freberg and friends (including three prominent voice actors of the time—Daws Butler, Marvin Miller, and Wil Wright) present a satirical, mildly poignant take on the heavy commercialization of the holiday. The action centers around a Scrooge type (played in top form by Freberg) as he goes around a table inquiring about what each advertiser is doing to increase its sales for the year. When he gets to Bob Cratchitt—who only wants to send his customers a friendly holiday message—Scrooge breaks into song about increasing his sales. It’s funny, but also quite serious in both message and tone.
As he wrote in his 1988 autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, this skit was the subject of a bit of controversy at the time and led to Freberg almost leaving Capitol Records entirely in addition to rankling the feathers of quite a few people involved in the advertising trade. The biography goes into greater detail about this and Freberg’s other work, with plenty of insight into his life and career.
Freberg wasn’t necessarily taking a stance against advertising in general—he was an ad man himself, responsible for famous ads from Alka-Seltzer and a delightful ad for Contadina tomato paste among many others—but rather taking aim at the exploitation of the holiday by folks who only cared about money over the spirit of the season.
Despite a lack of promotion from Capitol Records, the skit made the Billboard Charts in 1959 and hopefully played a hand in influencing an entire generation of listeners to look at holiday commercialization with a more critical eye. As for the proceeds from the record’s sales? Freberg donated at least $1000 worth of royalties from the album’s sales to The Hemophilia Foundation of Southern California, demonstrating a deeper understanding and respect for what the holiday season is all about.
Four parody versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to enjoy this holiday season
On the first day of Christmas, my true love told me stop making up inappropriate parody lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The original holiday carol is full of metaphoric imagery, the spirit of giving, and lots of birds. It’s also somewhat monotonous and—when you really get down to it—just a little bit tedious. It’s no wonder then, that this song seems to be parodied often—almost on par with “Jingle Bells.” You may have been created your own (if so, we’d love to hear it). Without further ado, here are five of our favorite parody versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas:”
4. Allan Sherman, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”
Before “Weird Al” Yankovic became the undisputed King of Pop Culture Parody, Allan Sherman and Spike Jones were mocking classical music and standards throughout the 1940s/1950s (Jones) and 1960 (Sherman). Sherman had a string of hit albums and records in the early 1960s, releasing “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” on 1964’s For Swingin’ Livers Only.
I’ve always enjoyed the Allan Sherman’s work—I even bought the Rhino Handmade Limited Edition Box Set My Son, the Box in 2005—and this version is among my personal favorite versions of the song. There are at least two versions of the song—an unedited version, featuring the line “a statue of a naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be” and the album version which omitted the word “naked” in an effort to clean up the song’s content.
In the song, Sherman is the recipient of a number of fine gifts, the first of which is a Japanese transistor radio. With every subsequent gift (green polka dot pajamas, a calendar book, and an alligator wallet among other things) he further describes the radio and its features. That is, up
until day six, when he gives up singing the countdown altogether and simply states what he receives that day, followed by the phrase “and all that other stuff.” At the end of it all, he decides to exchange everything on day twelve.
For those interested in such things, the transistor radio is a Nakashuma Mark IV (the one that’s discontinued) with a small leatherette case that holes in it (so you can listen through the case). It also has a wire with a thing on one end that you can stick in your ear and a thing on the other end that you can’t stick anywhere...because it’s bent. I couldn’t find much else about them—it’s entirely possible the name and model were just something Sherman came up with for comedic effect—but one fan of the song did create custom iPhone cases back in 2012 to commemorate the old transistor radio that Sherman loved.
3. Bob & Doug Mackenzie, “12 Days of Christmas”
Hey, Hoser, if ya haven’t spun Bob & Doug MacKenzie’s record this holiday season, then stop what you’re doing, grab some strange brew, and throw that sucker on the turntable. The characters of Bob & Doug Mackenzie were already staples of SCTV and gathered quite a following among comedy fans and college students in their heyday. Their gentle mockery of Canadian broadcasting and customs was funny and inoffensive, cementing the duo—who in real life are Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas—as full fledged comedy performers.
Bob & Doug’s version of the song starts with the titular characters attempting to figure out what the twelve days of Christmas actually are (according to How Stuff Works, it’s Dec. 25 thru Jan. 06) and goes from there. They start with getting a beer and the gifts continue with golden tukes, some back bacon, and a few donuts. Bob & Doug become increasingly, progressively lost as the song devolves into beautiful chaos with the duo trying to find the nearest donut shop.
Coming off their The Great White North album, the song is one of the funniest things on the record, which is worth at least a six pack of laughs on its own merits. Not bad for a couple of characters who were created as filler material to mock Canadian Network. Have yourself a Merry Christmas and don’t forget to Take Off!
2. Bob Rivers Comedy Corp, “12 Pains of Christmas”
The inimitable Bob Rivers kicked off his Twisted Christmas album with a fantastic parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that rivals many other version of the song. It’s funny, silly, a little bit weird, and 100 percent relatable for anybody who regularly celebrates the holiday. Hey, it can be a stressful time, so why not complain about it a bit?
In this version of the song, Rivers perfectly captures the trials and tribulations of preparing for and celebrating the holiday season. Rather than a chorus of carolers singing the song as it counts down, a different character (most of which sound like hilarious impressions of everyday people that Bob and others are doing on the record)
Finding a Christmas tree, hangovers, sending Christmas cards, five months of bills, rigging up Christmas lights, listening to spoiled kids begging for new toys, and facing one’s in-laws all make an appearance in this hilarious and highly irreverent parody.
1. Frank Welker, “A Totally Ridiculous 12 Days of Christmas”
You may know him as the voice of the evil robotic tyrant, Megatron from The Transformers franchise or perhaps as the ascot adorned, too-smug-for-his-own-good leader of the mystery-solving gang in Scooby-Doo. Others may remember him as Ray Stantz from The Real Ghostbusters. Either way, Frank Welker probably voiced a character you loved as a kid and he’s still going strong today.
But he was also a comedian and in 1986, Welker released his own take on the Christmas classic. Along with the John Bahler Singers, Welker performed this song with an interesting style: doing animal imitations. Each of the twelve days features some very interesting imitations and impressions, including one where Welker does a spot on Jimmy Stewart impression, another where he imitates whiny kids, another as an elderly curmudgeon. Most of them showcase his amazing impressions of animal sounds. Welker can play a pigeon or dog better than the real thing sometimes.
There’s even a connection to the greatest Christmas movie of all time—Gremlins—here, as Welker voiced the titular monsters for that film. This is just too fun not to be included on the list and we highly recommend giving it a listen at least once per year.
Strange holiday weather with The Weather Girls
Sometimes, a song will completely throw the listener for a loop. Take the case of “Dear Santa (Bring me a Man).” What starts out as a light, breezy tune with wonderful harmonies and a piano playing a sad, wistful melody rises and crescendos into a masterpiece of epic proportions. The beat picks up and it becomes a very soulful piece, set to a disco beat. The time signature is non-standard with a few shifts in tempo, the music does some very interesting things with rhythm and harmonies, while the singing fluctuates from soulful, gospel-style singing to quoting bits of “Deck the Halls” and “Let it Snow.” There’s a killer bass line toward the five minute mark, with the vocals swelling toward an epic ending. There’s a lot of variety going on here, even in the lyrics, which inverts the standard love song tropes quite well.
Co-written by Paul Shaffer—yes, that Paul Shaffer—and well-known disco songwriter Paul Jabara, the song appeared on the 1982/83 album Success. The Weather Girls were famous for another Shaffer/Jabara song from the Success album, “It’s Raining Men,” which was a pretty big hit at the time. Even if you’ve never heard this song, you’ve probably heard lead singer Martha Wash’s vocals during the dance craze of the 1990s, when music groups incorporated her performances into her own without properly crediting or compensating her for them—something that eventually ended up establishing Wash as a champion of artist’s rights.
“Dear Santa (Bring me a Man)” may seem like a footnote in the grand scheme of holiday music, but it is an important piece of pop culture Christmas history, whether you enjoy Disco or not. With its showcasing of singer Martha Wash’s vocals and performance, the song and music its insane music video are certainly worth a look and listen this holiday season.
Music is always a highly subjective subject, and holiday music is no different. While there’s a great deal of amazing, unique music at our fingertips, everyone’s taste is different. Although times have changed and the world of parody music has evolved to place YouTube at the top of the food chain, so to speak, one thing will remain constant: whenever there is a holiday to be celebrated, someone is bound to do something musically interesting related to it.
For example, recently those demented purveyors of fish heads themselves, Barnes & Barnes, are getting in on producing holiday music with their relatively new release Holidaze in Lumania. After years of inactivity, they’re back and celebrating the holidays in a big way. There’s no better way to give your friends the gift of a weird Christmas than putting some Barnes & Barnes under the tree.
My favorite Christmas song, though, is always going to be “Father Christmas” by The Kinks. I relate to its key message of “hey, Santa, give me some money” but moreover, it speaks to my own taste for holiday music. It’s unique, it’s different, and it simply rocks. After all, isn’t that what music is all about?
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