Christmas Equals Wall of Sound

It’s that time of year again.

Come Monday, December the 1st, you’ll be spinnin’ Phil Spector’s ‘Christmas Gift for You’ longplayer 24/7,…. That is, if you haven’t done so already through 2014? It’s that good an album.

Yes, Phil Spector really outdid himself when he loomed large over sweating Wrecking Crew members in Gold Star studios during long, hot summer nights in 1963. End result? The perfect Christmas record. It will probably never be outdone when it comes to bringing holiday cheer.

For someone as notoriously known for padding out albums with quickly recorded filler, Spector uncharacteristically kept his focus while working up ‘A Christmas Gift for You.’ All the songs are great and sure enough; the one original song on there, Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’, has rightly so become one of the ultimate holiday anthems.

‘A Christmas Gift for You.’ The cover art is legendary!
‘A Christmas Gift for You.’ The cover art is legendary!

Even though the album didn’t see much success upon its original release, no doubt affected by the JFK assasination shortly after it hit the streets, it has since grown in stature. Nowadays, it wouldn’t be wrong to call it the ‘Pet Sounds’ of Christmas music. Year after year it tops the lists of Christmas albums when music critics, blogs or websites offer their opinion of the greatest Christmas music of all time.

Spector’s Wall of Sound and the Christmas spirit definitely was a match made in heaven. A lot of the elements that made his sound work fit the yuletide feeling to a T. We’re talking sleigh bells, sweeping string arrangements and a warm, muddled sound. It’s no wonder that time has proven Spector’s album to be the perfect soundtrack for huddling up in front of the fire while it’s snowing outside. You could say then that the Wall of Sound has become synonymous with Christmas because of the album. And not surprisingly, December is the time of year where you’ll have the best chance of discovering new Spector-influenced music if you check out each year’s flood of new Christmas releases.

To prove my point I’ve decided to combine my love for modern Spector soundalikes and Christmas music in this post. The goal is to compile my personal tribute to ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ using songs from modern artists who clearly show how Spector’s ghost continues to hover over a lot of today’s Christmas music.

The rules are simple. All songs must be from the new millennium. All songs should be original as opposed to Spector’s album, just to keep it a bit more interesting for you, the reader. And it almost goes without saying that I must come up with 13 tracks, – the same amount as on Spector’s album. I’ve managed to find youtube clips for all songs which I’ll embed here for your listening pleasure. So bear with me & the blog if this post takes some time to upload in your browser.

"Ok, all you young wannabes. Let's see what you've got!"
“Ok, all you young wannabes. Let’s see what you’ve got!”

Ready for some Christmas Wall of Sound? Here we go!

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1. The Hives & Cyndi Lauper – A Christmas Duel (2008)

This single from 2008 is the perfect opener. It’s a stunning team-up between Swedish retro-rockers the Hives and US veteran Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi really gives Ronnie Spector a run for her money, no doubt drawing on her experience of singing back-up for Ronnie a long time ago.

2. Leona Lewis – Mr. Right (2013)

Here’s a nifty song I discovered last year. It’s from this British singer’s Christmas album and probably the most blatant ‘All I Want for Christmas’ rip-off you’re ever going to hear. Mariah Carey should sue any day now. But since I’ve, unbelievably so, become tired of listening to Mariah’s song, this’ll do nicely to fill the gap.

3. Attic Lights – Why Should Christmas be so Hard? (2012)

Again a more recent song by Scottish indie-pop band Attic Lights. These guys are great and have proven to be perfectly adept at the Spector sound before, – check their ‘Bring You Down’ single for evidence. This is like a cross between Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and Brian Wilson’s mid 60s work. High praise indeed but this fantastic song deserves it.

4. Metro Jets – Jingle Jangle Christmas (2006)

Here’s the second Swedish entry. This was actually a theme song made for a local TV show which is all the more remarkable as it’s one of the best and most enjoyable Wall of Sound pastiches I’ve heard. Listen to that thumping beat and the catchy melody. Imagine how this could have sounded with Darlene Love behind the mic!

5. The Raveonettes – The Christmas Song (2003)

Danish duo the Raveonettes have proven time and again that they’re as big fans of the Wall of Sound as they come. Why, they’ve even had the pleasure of duetting with Ronnie Spector on their fabulous ‘Ode to LA’ single. This song isn’t as loud and busy as some of my other choices but I think it has a feel that makes it obvious for inclusion. Those tinkling sleighbells, that reverby guitar… With a bit more echo on the drums and a Jack Nitzsche string arrangement, you’d have a delicious slice of moody Wall of Sound…

6. Lisa Mychols – Listen to the Bells Ring (2002)

Great use of castanets and a Hal Blaine-sounding drum beat on this classic track from US singer Lisa Mychols. The arrangement is majestic with perfect backing by the Wondermints who have made up the backbone of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s band for years.

7. The Kik – A Christmas Song for You (2011)

The Dutch also know how to rock it out Spector-style! Another Spector fan alerted me to this great track in 2011 and I was instantly won over by their jet-propelled take on the Wall of Sound. Sleighbells galore, rapidfire piano runs and a melody that’s catchy as hell! There’s even a Steve Douglas wannabe honking away on the solo!

8. Parker Lewis – X-Mas Carol NYC (2007)

We’re off to Sweden again for this melancholic ballad. It’s a toned down approach for sure compared to the other songs. I’ve had a soft spot for this one ever since discovering it. The use of glockenspiel, sleighbells and jangling guitars is very touching and perfectly complements the sad lyrics and soft ‘sha-dam-dam’ backing vocals.

9. The Hilarettes – Santa Claus is Here! (2009)

We’re back to more familiar territory with this by-the-numbers Spector tribute. This one is a no-brainer for inclusion with its percussive sax and grand sweeping string arrangement. I would have preferred a singer with a stronger, more distinctive voice but you can’t have it all, I guess.

10. Darlene Love – Christmas Time for the Jews (2005, SNL sketch)

If you’re going to make a convincing Wall of Sound tribute the dream scenario would be getting Darlene Love to belt out your song. That’s what happened in 2005 when comedy show Saturday Night Live decided to do a sketch about the holiday season and Jewish people. What better way to address the topic than with a perfect Spector sound clone? My jaw hit the floor when I first heard this production. It’s note-perfect Wall of Sound and wouldn’t have been out of place on the original ‘A Christmas Gift for You’ album,…. with revised lyrics of course. Sadly, this one has never come out as a conventional track. Someone somewhere should really re-record this great song with new lyrics!

11. Glasvegas – Please Come Back Home (2008)

Not only did Scottish band Glasvegas pay their debt to Spector’s sound with a few songs off their cool debut album in 2008; they even followed in his footsteps that same year by releasing a great Christmas mini-album. Lead singer and main songwriter James Allen has a voice to die for and really knows how to milk a song for all it’s worth. The obligatory sleigh bells and a maelstrom of churning guitars add to the intensity.

12. The School – Kiss You in the Snow (2009)

I’ve written about the criminally overlooked Welsh band the School before. If they indeed went to school in Spectorland, they got straight As! And sure enough, they put their Wall of Sound skills to good use on this cracker of a Christmas single. Listen to that chorus with the background whooos. You could easily imagine the Crystals sing their hearts out on this one.

13. Surf School Dropouts – Another Christmas with You (2013)

The last song here is one I co-wrote and recorded with the group I’m in last year. Please don’t throw tomatoes at me! I know it’s a bit cheesy and self-serving to include your own song but a fellow Spector fan whose opinion I respect urged me to feature it on the blog as he felt it was a great tribute to the Wall of Sound. So what the hell… I do think it encapsulates what this post has been all about. We tried to put everything but the kitchen sink into this one. Mandolins, dramatic strings, glockenspiels, 6 acoustic guitars playing in unison, … you name it.

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So there you have it. I hope you discovered some cool songs you didn’t know before coming here. If they’ll bring you some holiday cheer throughout December my mission is accomplished. If you know of songs that would have fit here, please drop me a comment below. I’m always on the look-out for more stuff in the same vein. And if I happen to discover something similar this year I’ll of course write about it on the blog. So keep checking in.

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11 thoughts on “Christmas Equals Wall of Sound”

  1. I take issue with the statement the album did not sell well in 1963. Obviously, the single pulled from the album did not set the world on fire. But reading the December 28th issue of Billboard magazine, it stated, “The death of President Kennedy has had considerable influence on the sales on Christmas record buying. While the standards are going briskly, the most phenomenal grosses are being run up on record tributes to John Fitzgerald Kennedy…..” the article goes on to mention two competing versions of a tribute song on the charts. At that time Billboard listed Christmas sales on a separate chart and even with the interest in Kennedy sales, A Christmas Gift For You still made number 13 on the best seller chart. Not a bad showing to have a Top 15 album!

    The album was reissued in Dec 1972 with a new cover sporting a greatly updated and improved cover of Phil dressed in a Santa costume. Why was it the only Philles reissue on the Beatles label? It has been reported that bootleg or should I say unauthorized represses of the Philles album was coming from Philadelphia Pa.

    Christmas sales in 1972 were threatened by another enemy, promotionally priced record albums issued by banks, Firestone, Goodyear tires, etc. In fact, Billboard magazine dated Dec 9th 1972 blamed the premium records at banks and service stations “are eating into” sales. Ben Karol of King Karol record chain said, “I see people walking out of the major banks with these $1.49 Christmas courtesy albums under their arms and realize these folks have made their Christmas Record purchase for the year.”
    Even in that year, the Apple reissue made number 6, it’s highest charting to date. But overall I feel the the first two issues of the album sold quite well.

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  2. Hi Paul. Thank you for your comment. You certainly have a very valid point and I now wish I had worded my thoughts on the initial release differently.

    It’s interesting to hear that the album saw that level of initial succes for a Christmas release chartwise. I wasn’t aware of it’s # 13 chart listing. The question of course is what it took saleswise to reach # 13 on the Christmas charts back then? It may have been a fraction of the sales numbers required for the Billboard pop charts. Who knows?

    One thing that I forgot to mention in my post, and I noticed you didn”t mention it either, is also the fact that Spector withdrew the album shortly after the JFK assasination. So any discussion of its reception, lukewarm or positive, must take into consideration Spector’s own decision to pull the plug on it rather than making it a case of the record buying public not embracing the album. It had only been on the market for about 2 to 3 weeks and was withdrawn before the all-important December sales rush.

    Anyways, thank you for adding this info.

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  3. “the fact that Spector withdrew the album shortly after the JFK assassination.”

    Correction, it was not the album that was withdrawn, but rather the Darlene Love single, Johnny (Baby Please Come Home) which was supposed to be the follow up to the Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). President Kennedy’s name was John. Phil’ thought was since Christmas songs don’t get airplay after Dec 25th, if he had a chart hit he needed to have a similar sounding follow up to carry the popularity into the new year. The chart position I quoted was from the Dec 28th issue so the LP was not withdrawn. But since Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) wasn’t a hit, it is doubtful if the follow up would have done anything. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwkvdGqV77w

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  4. No doubt it could have been considered controversial to issue a single with the title ‘Johnny (Baby Please Come Home)’ during that national mourning period. But are you absolutely certain that the album wasn’t withdrawn as well, Paul?

    Your comment made me check some of the Spector books I have on the shelf. Most state what you have pointed out is probably a myth – that the album didn’t sell well. Fitzpatrick and Fogerty for example in their ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ book write: “the album went largely unnoticed by the public upon its release in 1963.” Ronnie Spector takes it one step further in her autobiography claiming “(…) the album was one of Phil’s biggest flops. (…) nobody bought it when it first came out.” But then, it has been established that some of her claims should be taken with a grain of salt. She definately has an axe to grind…

    But back to what may be another myth then, – the withdrawel of the album. I can see that both Dave Thompson in his ‘Wall of Pain’ book and Mick Brown in ‘Tearing Down the Wall of Sound’ claim that Spector pulled back its release. Mick Brown writes: “In the mood of national shock and mourning, Spector immidiately withdrew the Christmas album from release. ‘A president died and the public changed,’ he would later explain. ‘How would you like to put out a $ 55.000 album the same week as something like the President being assasinated took place?'” Both authors feature that Spector quote.

    I can’t tell from either Thompson’s book or Brown’s where they got that quote from. If that bit of info on the withdrawel isn’t true it may have originated in Darlene Love’s autobiography. She doesn’t feature the quote but write that a “(…) casualty was the Christmas album, which Phil yanked immidiatedly. (…) Very few boxes got out of the warehouse, and I think today only a handful of the original pressings still exist. (…) whenever I ran into someone who had worked on the album, we commiserated over the lost opportunity and wondered if Phil was ever going to put it out again.”

    Would it be possible for the Christmas album to have a # 13 Christmas chart placing solely based on initial airplay and sales numbers for the few copies that found their way into shops before the album may have been withdrawn? Could such an initial but limited circulation of the album had been enough for a pretty solid chart placing even after the album may have been pulled, seeing that the the Christmas music market was deeply affected?

    Interesting. I guess this just highlights how many myths the Spector tale is built upon..

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    1. There is a first-pressing blue label and a red/yellow label version…..is it safe to say the all the red/yellow ones are from the following year 1964?. Weird….since the singles had the red/yellow label in the summer of 1963?

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      1. If you’re talking about Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) the catalog numbers tell the tale. It was issued in 1963 on Philles 119 with a junky instrumental B side and supposedly withdrawn. The number was reused for a Crystals single “Little Boy” (I think). The following year 1964 it was given a then current number Philles 124 with Winter Wonderland as a B side. The same pairing was reissued again in 1965 with an X catalog number (Philles X-124). At least that is what one discography says. As for the album, the Blue label album is 1963 and the Red Yellow represses were issued in 1964 and years after. Strangely all the Philles pressings have the Marshmellow spelling on the front cover. Seems like he would have fixed that with the 1964 and after represses.

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      2. Hi Paul, I was thinking about the album. Wasn’t there blue pressings of The Ronettes album, and that was first released in 1964…so in other words the red/yellow must have started sometime during 1964 between the Ronettes albums first and second pressing, and before Christmas 1964….

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  5. Nice selection, although some of them feel a bit labored in their Spectorian homage. Gotta say that Darlene Love’s “Christmas Time for the Jews” cuts the legs out from all of the rest, although they get A-plusses for effort.

    Just to add to the discussion, I was on WBRU in Providence when the Philles Christmas album came out. I recall it as a hit, but I remember the single being pulled; Spector was afraid of breaking his hit streak. But that was long ago and far away….

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