(This post should have run last week sometime, but we do not always get what we want.)
A few weeks ago I wrote about the two American Top 40 Christmas countdowns, which aired in 1971 and 1973. The 1971 countdown of the top Christmas records in the first 30 years of Billboard chart history was made available to stations for rebroadcast this past Christmas weekend. Although a lot of affiliates probably pre-empted it for special holiday programming, I got a copy to listen to in the car on our holiday travels.
Sweet mama, it was dreadful.
It started off reasonably enough, with “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” by Elvis. But the six records that followed Elvis represented as horrid a stretch as any in AT40 history: “Santa Claus Is Watching You” by Ray Stevens, “The Happy Reindeer” by Dancer, Prancer, and Nervous, “Little Altar Boy” by Andy Williams, Dickie Goodman’s “Santa and the Satellite,” “Santo Natale” by David Whitfield, and “Baby’s First Christmas” by Connie Francis. “The Happy Reindeer,” a Chipmunks record in all but name with the same speeded-up voices, created an epic train wreck alongside the Williams record, which runs something like five minutes and seems twice as long. Goodman and Whitfield created precisely the same sort of mess.
After the wretched “Baby’s First Christmas,” the proceedings took a more positive turn with the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” only to crash to a halt again with Stan Freberg’s “Christmas Dragnet.” From there, it was everything-but-the-kitchen-sink time again with Harry Belafonte’s lovely “Mary’s Boy Child,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” and Yogi Yorgesson’s Scandinavian novelty “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” The first hour ended with the Chipmunks version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” And thus another big problem with the show is revealed: specifically, too many Chipmunks records (four in all, counting “The Happy Reindeer”), and generally, too much novelty crap. It’s like Casey was possessed by the spirit of Dr. Demento.
The second hour was a little better, although it’s hard to understand at 40 years’ distance the attraction of “Christmas in Killarney.” Up at #17, Casey mentioned that several versions of “Nuttin” for Christmas” had been popular in 1955, but he chose to play the ear-bleeding version by Ricky Zahnd instead of the more popular (but equally ear-bleeding) one by Barry Gordon. Also, having to put “Nuttin’ for Christmas” two spots away from the original “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd at #15 is solid evidence that mathematics is no damn good for anybody.
In addition to being heavy on the Chipmunks, the countdown was also loaded with Gene Autry tunes—three in all. No juxtaposition was more telling than the one between Autry’s versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Frosty the Snowman” and the Phil Spector-produced versions by Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and the Ronettes—the contrast between Autry’s rural honk and Spector’s citified “little symphonies for the kids” make clear what rock ‘n’ roll came to destroy, and why. (Nowhere did Casey mention Spector, although he played three of his tracks in about a 30-minute span.)
In the third hour, listeners were still forced to sit through some dreadful records, including the Four Seasons’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” all copies of which should be collected and burned. But it was in this hour that the show finally got to Nat King Cole and the Harry Simeone Chorale and “White Christmas,” all of which were legitimately classic in 1971 and remain so today.
Even though I looked over the track list for the 1971 show when I wrote my earlier post, that didn’t prepare me for listening to it unfold in real time. Even accounting for differences in tastes 41 years ago, it’s hard to consider the show anything but an epic disaster, and the worst installment in AT40 history.