20. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love
I make no apologies for the faint whiff of predictability in posting about a Christmas song four days before Christmas. I really hadn’t intended to but I’ve found it particularly hard to write about any music in the last couple of weeks and I think part of the issue has been the steady invasion of Christmas music into my auditory landscape; in shops, on the radio, and increasingly at home.
This got me thinking about all those very specific, seasonal songs and why it hadn’t occurred to me, when initially drafting the list of the 42, to include any of them. The reason is obvious, of course. I drafted the initial list in August and, more than any other type of song, these are records that I only really think about for a finite period every year and then they’re gone. But think of them I do and, every year, they’re a big part of my musical life so, on reflection, it feels remiss to not acknowledge that.
I also got to thinking about the lack of Springsteen thus far in the 42 and, post rationalising furiously, decided that I was covering a number of his key influences first – deconstructing some of the elements of his appeal before tackling the man himself. It would have been quite smart if I’d set out with a deliberate intention to do that but it’d also be completely untrue so I will just have to claim it now as a happy accident. So there’s been a post on Dylan and some bits and pieces on Motown and 60s soul records, still missing Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Animals, Van Morrison and James Brown (to name but some), but now, at least, I can add Phil Spector to the list.
Spector has been hugely influential in how popular music sounds, famously through his wall of sound production techniques; progressively layering multiple tracks and a large range of instrumentation to create a big sound. He was at the forefront of the explosion of girl groups in the 60s, writing and producing for The Crystals and The Ronettes, and was at the helm of two of the finest recordings, in my opinion, of the 20th century: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”. His influence covers everyone from Brian Wilson to The Jesus & Mary Chain and was an acknowledged touchstone for Springsteen, particularly with respect to the sound he created on “Born To Run”.
Spector’s career petered out through the 70s and he largely disappeared in the 80s and 90s before he was found guilty of second degree murder in 2009; he had shot actress Lana Clarkson at his home six years previously. He had always been a somewhat infamous figure – allegedly frequently pulling guns on recording artists working with him – and now his reputation will always be tarnished by the severity of that crime. Before all of that, back when he was establishing himself as a producer, Spector put out “A Christmas Gift For You”, a collection of festive songs from his stable of artists at the time. It even includes a take on “Silent Night” over which Spector himself thanks everyone for working on the record and wishes us all a merry Christmas; it’s slightly bizarre to reconcile his softly spoken tidings with the man he evidently became.
“A Christmas Gift For You”, which is pretty much brilliant throughout, also includes this: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. It’s far and away my favourite festive song. I share the general appreciation for, say, “Fairytale of New York” and have a big soft spot for The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” but this is the one. Start to finish it is the work of a genius (and I don’t use that word lightly). First sixteen seconds, those big chords echoing out on the first beat of each bar, tambourine (sleigh bells ?) counting out the tempo, strings shimmering in the background, bass climbing up a scale, before the drums accelerate us into the vocals and that first burst of “Christmas !”. That, right there, is the entire experience of the expectation and anticipation of the run up to Christmas climaxing with the day itself wrapped up in sixteen seconds. Darlene Love hasn’t even opened her mouth yet.
When she does she absolutely lets loose and belts out the song. No frills, just a show stopping display of raw singing power. It’s a vocal that could level buildings. It’s testament to Love that she invests some fairly straightforward lyrics – girl misses boy at Christmas, wants him to come home – with real feeling. There’s a desperate longing in her performance which culminates in the pleading “please please please” section towards the song’s close; it’s terrific hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff. Spector, of course, was something of a specialist in evoking that sense of yearning – “Be My Baby” later elevating it to stratospheric heights.
Christmas for me has taken on a series of rituals over the years; whether it’s decorating the tree, watching “Elf”, putting out a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve (and whatever booze we have in for Santa, this year will be port), and visiting family and friends. This song is part of that fabric and, as such, carries lots of happy associations. It always makes me smile.
Halfway through writing this it occurred to me that this is such a quintessentially Spector sounding record and consequently, in some respects, such a quintessentially E-Street Band sounding record, that surely Springsteen must have covered it. Especially given that he’s always had no qualms about goofing around with a fun Christmas song when the time of year is right.
Sure enough here it is. It works well (not as perfectly as Darlene Love’s peerless take – there have been tons of covers of this record but none of them get close to the original) and I feel vindicated in my notion of deconstructing his influences ! If only I’d kept quiet it could have looked like a brilliant pre-conceived plan.
So, Merry Christmas, and if you want to make a case for why, for example, I should have gone with Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” – also produced by Spector funnily enough – then let me know in the comments. Would love to hear which festive tune does it for you.