Rock Christmas Songs
Back in the good old days it was much more simple, Rock was called Rock ‘n’ Roll and wasn’t used as an generic term to describe dozen of sub genres that have emerged in the later part of the 20th century. So let’s return to those rose tinted days when a rock Christmas often meant disenfranchising the more elderly family members in your household. The big starting point for rock Christmas songs could well have been 1957 because it heralded the arrival of Elvis Presley’s eponymous Christmas album and Bobby Helms ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ (which must also rank as a champion amongst rockabilly Christmas songs)’. ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ was partially blues in direction but it contained one of the great rock Christmas songs in ‘Blue Christmas’. Other have tried to fashion in their own image but only Elvis’ late 50’s version has stood the test of time. The following Christmas in 1958 Little Miss Dynamite Brenda Lee gave us her seminal ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ and the holidays have never been the same. Chuck Berry would give us that year’s second addition to the best rock and roll Christmas songs with ‘Run Rudolf Run’ blazing a trail using piano, chords and Berry’s madcap sleigh ride vocals.
It would be 5 years later, in 1963, before one of the greatest Christmas albums of them all was released. Phil Spector’s ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ worked on so many levels within the context of his famed ‘wall of noise’ that dropping the needle (this was the vinyl age remember) anywhere on the record would reveal another entry into the pantheon of great rock Christmas songs. Take your pick from the Ronettes ‘Frosty The Snowman’, the Crystals ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ and all the other greats, but we’ll probably all meet in the middle for Darlene Love ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ which is surely one of the most recognisable Christmas songs of all time.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s rock Christmas songs continued to embed themselves into our most played recordings each holiday season. Songs like Greg Lake’s grandiose ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ which had the ambition to also deliver on an hugely impressive orchestral front. Simpler and perhaps more memorable for many was the early 1971’s ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ which John Lennon released soon after the break-up of the Beatles who themselves left us the little known but fine Christmas rock allure of ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’. Christmas rock music continued to emerge from unexpected sources throughout the 1970’s with the Kinks turning in a rocking ‘Father Christmas’ in 1977, while the kings of the underground Big Star gave us ‘Jesus Christ’ a year later which celebrated that famous birth of 2000 years ago. Elton John’s ‘Step Into Christmas’, while not entirely rock and roll, did all it could to give the world an updated wall of sound and in many ways the English singer succeeded.
By the time punk rock had arrived in the middle to late 1970’s rock had already started to splinter and take on an all things to all people approach. The genre didn’t exactly embrace Christmas but the Ramones’ ‘Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)’ did at least give us one classic punk rock Christmas song. From a little earlier we were treated to a bevvie of glam rock Christmas songs such as Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ and Mud’s (note perfect Elvis sounding) ‘Lonely This Christmas’. While the punks covered themselves in spittle it was not at all surprising that the glam rockers delighted in decorating themselves in tinsel of every hue. 1978 also gave us one of the most notable country rock Christmas songs via the Eagles cover of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ which was previously released as a blues number.
Despite rock’s reclassification classic Christmas rock songs continued to be produced in the late part of the 20th century. The Pretenders 1983’s ‘2000 Miles’ was one such, a simple chord based ditty with Chrissie Hynde telling the story of two lovers who had to spend Christams apart from each other. 2 years previously post punk band the Waitresses had released their ‘Christmas Wrapping’ single which appeared to take an age to work its way into public consciousness before finally becoming the December staple we have today. When it comes to Christmas rock you need a steady hand and you know you are going to get just that with the Boss Bruce Springsteen. Oddly enough his greatest contribution to the Christmas canon is a live version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’. With his E Street Band adding suitable Christmas effects Springsteen gave the old standard a remarkably energetic makeover that will resonate with Christmas music fans for decades to come.
The 1980’s are well regarded for their contribution on producing some of the best Christmas rock songs. For a start there was Band Aid’s 1984 ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ which included contributions from some of the greatest UK rock stars of the time. One of them was Bono whose own band U2 recorded a stellar version of Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)’ for the Christmas compilation ‘A Very Special Christmas’. There were classic Christmas songs also being produced by the gods of bombastic rock Queen whose 1984 single ‘Thank God It’s Christmas’ was disappointingly their own festive release. Incidentally the ghost of that Queen Christmas song would be reproduced a couple of decades later by the Darkness and the over the top ‘Christmastime (Don't Let The Bells End)' which enjoyed huge success in Britain in 2003. The eighties also produced its fair share of soft rock Christmas songs in the shape of Bryan Adams ‘Christmastime’ and the sleigh bell heavy and sugary sweet ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ by Chris Rea. While neither of these songs would have had the critics in a tizzy they nonetheless have stayed the course. Something that has been universally praised from all quarters however came at the end of the 1980’s with the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ providing us with the definitive folk rock Christmas song.
As rock further fragmented so did the Christmas songs that were being produced. So we had head banging hard rock Christmas albums such as Twisted Sisters’ ‘A Twisted Christmas’, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s ‘The Christmas Attic’ and Iron Maiden’s chord heavy remake of ‘Another Rock and Roll Christmas’. Guitar god George Thorogood even got in on the action with his ‘Rock & Roll Christmas’ as did antipodean rockers AC/DC on their cheeky ‘A Mistress For Christmas’. Rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd went the full distance with their own Christmas album called 'Christmas Time Again'.
If the noise emanating from hard rock is too much for you be assured that there a gentler alternative in the form of Christian rock Christmas songs which have grown in stature since the early 1990’s. Standout numbers include Jars of Clay’s ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ and Casting Crowns ‘Christmas Offering’ which present a potent mix of devotion and rebellion in one place. Not exactly religious in tone but pumping the Christmas sound through its every vein is the Smashing Pumpkins ‘Christmastime’. The band that produced one of the 1990’s loudest rock albums in ‘Siamese Dream’ managed to play a sweet Christmas song full of the season signature sounds just a couple of years later on ‘Christmastime’.
For a more cerebral rock experience you can trust prog rockers to engineer something fanciful. And so Jethro Tull’s 'The Jethro Tull Christmas Album' from 2003 is an experience worth taking if progressive rock Christmas songs do it for you. ‘Ring Out Solstice Bells’ is perhaps the most well-known song on the album but there is many more interesting rock noodles to be found elsewhere.