By DJ El Toro
The 1980s were a rotten decade for Christmas music. Oh, there were highlights: The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” “Fairytale of New York,” by the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl. But mainstream radio stations and MTV favored the saccharine “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” or that heinous reindeer hit-and-run number I refuse to even name. Or simply went with the classicsâ€¦ like the Singing Dogs barking “Jingle Bells.” Yuck.
But in 1986, I received a gift that changed my attitude towards yuletide music. I didn’t find it under the tree; it was tucked away in an import bin at Tower Records, a mid-priced LP, in a sleeve depicting arty characters at a holiday cocktail party. Aside from the title, Ghosts of Christmas Past, there were few clues to its contents. The spine revealed it was a product of Les Disques du CrÃ©puscule, the Belgian label responsible for one of my favorite chanteuses, Anna Domino. I decided to take the gambleâ€¦
And I won. When I got home and pulled off the cellophane, I found a track listing (all the other text inside was in a foreign tongue I couldn’t, and still can’t, decipher, but assume is Flemish). Cabaret Voltaire, Durutti Column, Paul Haig of Josef Kâ€¦ all manner of esoteric musical hipsters. And what glorious little ditties. Some chose to interpret â€“ however loosely â€“ familiar classics. The items Winston Tong ticked off on his version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” bore little resemblance to the original list. Thick Pigeon stripped “Jingle Bell Rock” down to chugging rhythms and a deadpan vocal by Factory Records oddball Stanton Miranda.
The originals proved equally eccentric. Antena fashioned an itsy-bitsy, summery samba entitled “NoÃ«lle a Hawai,” and Tuxedomoon huffed and wheezed through “Weihnachts Rap.” Pitched somewhere in the middle of it all was “The Hot Club of Christ,” a jazzy instrumental wherein Aztec Camera ditched any pretense of being precious, and racy through a high-speed holiday medley that came off like Django Reinhart, hopped up on goofballs in the pit of an ad hoc pageant orchestra.
The original album cover from 1986
photo by Dereck Von
Over 20 years later, the fine folks at LTM Recordings â€“ caretakers of Factory, CrÃ©pescule, and related ephemera â€“ have reissued Ghosts of Christmas Past on CD. From the liner notes, I learned that the album originally came in 1981, with a different track listing than the one I have grown to love. Modified editions followed in 1982 and 1986, as well as a CD mish-mash of the best of all three in 1988 â€“ all long since deleted.
The LTM reissue restores the 1981 track listing and cover art, plus 9 bonus tracks culled from related releases. That oh-so-droll “Jingle Bell Rock” I came to love on the 1986 version is gone, but all the rest are here â€“ and plenty more besides. There are holiday-themed contributions from Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio, Michael Nyman, and a young Louis Phillipe (recording as The Arcadians). This Thanksgiving weekend, as I listened to it driving home from Portland, I fell in love with Ghosts of Christmas Past all over again.
What is it about this record that exerts such a terrific pull? The answer, I suspect, lies in these two sentences, excerpted from a brief declaration of intent printed on the back of the original Ghosts LP: “Some will enjoy it, some will dislike it, some will be surprised. On this particular day where a smooth tender cloud seems to transform all virtualities into possibilities, are [sic] best wishes are to those who don’t live up to their abilitiesâ€¦”
In a nutshell? It’s okay for weirdoes to love Christmas â€“ and Christmas music â€“ too.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show “In Between Sleep & Reason,” Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org.