Waterloo always sounded like an exotic place to me, an English garden oasis dotted with fountains and plum trees and those little stone statues of naked angel-babies. The name suggested a swan pond, croquet matches, and crustless triangle sandwiches served at 3 p.m. for tea. Little did I know that the “Waterloo” Ray Davies was singing about in the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which first topped the pop charts 51 years ago this week, in fact referred to a bustling train station in the center of London, far removed from the green gardens I’d imagined.
It took living in London to come to this realization. Prior to moving there at 21, I had a vague and filmic idea of the place, which would be better described as ignorant and romantic. I had no perception of London as a real metropolis. Like my relationship with New York before moving here, I simply knew I would love it. I decided to love it. And most of that preemptive love came from the British music I listened to as a child and into my teenage years. The influence of U.K. rock stars and punk urchins so influenced my tastes that as a middle schooler I dreamt up a future business plan that paid homage to my heroes across the pond.
When I was about 12 or 13, I let my dad in on this grand scheme of mine. I told him that when I was older, I was going to open a concert venue (/record store/clothing store/cafe, obviously). I would call it, “The London Underground.” My dad, a person who had actually been to London, as well as many other places, explained to me that this name was already taken, and the use of the word “underground” in that name did not mean “obscure” or “edgy,” but “underground” in the most literal sense. This was because that name belonged to the London metropolitan commuter train, which was in fact, subterranean. It would take me a decade to experience what he was talking about firsthand, but by then I’d at least figured out that owning your own brick and mortar business was a pain in the ass, anyway.
For years I subconsciously learned about different parts of London from songs by my favorite bands. The names of neighborhoods and streets would slip out of the mouths of the Jam’s Paul Weller and the Streets’ Mike Skinner, and funnel straight into my memory, where I kept them tucked away as useless scraps of information about a place I’d never been. The English music I loved so much was imparting me with a partial education on the city all along, but I wasn’t able to utilize until I moved there.
I knew from my favorite Tom Waits songs, for instance, that the “dirty old river” Ray Davies sang about in “Waterloo Sunset” was pronounced “temms,” not “Thames” despite its spelling. I’d like to think this saved me from being pegged as “too American” by my British friends, but my refusal to call bathrooms “the toilet” doomed me from day one. I knew there was a Wardour Street from one of the many Jam songs I loved in college, though I did not know where this “Wardour Street” was. When Morrissey sang about “Battersea” in “You’re the One for Me, Fatty,” I thought he was saying “All I’m about to see;” I had no idea he was talking about a South London power plant. I gleaned that Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook was singing about a poor couple getting pregnant and falling on hard times in “Up the Junction,” but didn’t realize the title was a pun combining a British euphemism for pregnancy (“up the duff”) and the northeastern neighborhood of Clapham Junction until I was informed otherwise.
When I moved to New York, the city felt paved with scenes from my favorite movies. When I moved to London, I navigated its circular streets with lines from my favorite songs. These songs followed me as much as I followed them, and my daily commute often felt like an interactive playlist. In 2013 I moved back to London for a summer, and spent two months interning at a fashion house in the southwest corner of the city. My commute took about two hours each way, as I lived on the exact opposite side of town. I’d get on the bus at Clapton Pond at 7 a.m. and transfer at Victoria station roughly an hour later. The moment the bus docked at Victoria, my mind’s DJ would invariably cue up “Victoria” by the Kinks. This was the schedule everyday, and it at times felt like the “I Got You Babe” alarm clock in Groundhog Day. Same song. Same Time. Every day.
From my second story bus seat I could see every street name as we rounded their corners. These were names I knew well, but I didn’t understand the significance of them until those early morning commutes. I passed by Wardour Street, where fortunately, there was no a-bomb. I saw signs for Brixton Station, which brought to mind the Clash’s dub-heavy classic “The Guns of Brixton.” I passed Trafalgar Square, and Leicester Square, and Sloane Square, each of which was lassoed to a song in my memory.
These associations are deeply ingrained in my hippocampus, and it never took much for a particular song to spill from my subconscious into my waking mind. When passing Vauxhall station, I thought only of Morrissey’s 1993 solo record Vauxhall and I. When my bus careened through Piccadilly Circus, Morrissey was there, too, with his brazen opening track from 1990’s Bona Drag, “Piccadilly Palare.” At times it felt like my brain was home to a 6-CD changer that swapped discs with the slightest provocation. After five years of living Stateside, things have changed: now when I listen to my favorite U.K. bands, I can picture the days when I stood exactly where they sing about.
My dad’s record collection has always been a significant source of music in my life. Its sheer volume and variety has never ceased to amaze me, and that is likely why I write about it so often. Each time I head home for the holidays (or between jobs) it is one of the first things I check on after settling in and petting my childhood cat. When I look at the six foot wide, five-story shelf of LPs, I see every house they’ve lived in, and every alphabetized box we’ve unpacked them from. On the southernmost shelves I see the evidence of three or four kittens, who’d used the spines of records “U” through “Z” as scratching posts. Those kitties always ended up conveniently “running away.”
My method for discovering music in my dad’s collection has never been strategic or efficient, and because of that, my memory of first finding Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel’s 1975 LP The Best Years of Our Lives is blurry. Thinking on it, I’ve whittled it down to two possibilities. It’s possible that my dad, in one of his many attempts to find a middle ground between his tastes and the ‘80s street punk I was listening to at the time, hooked me with a line about Steve Harley being related to Dave and Ray Davies. The second theory is far simpler; while thumbing through my dad’s collection, I came across an album sleeve picturing a handsome and stylish young man, who dare I say looked just like the Davies brothers.
Whatever the circumstances were, The Best Years of Our Lives made its way from shelf to turntable one day, and it damn near knocked me over. The record fulfilled the promise of Marc Bolan’s glam and the Kinksian wit Harley hinted at on the album cover, his shag haircut and sharp jacket doing all of the talking. Best Years was a spotless collection of music in my opinion, save for the opener, “Introducing ‘The Best Years,’” which stinks of ‘70s excess. One song on the album was so fantastic, however, that I can remember freezing the first time I heard it, my arms dripping with soap and water. One of my favorite ways to listen to music was at top volume, alone and doing the dishes before my parents got home from work. I was scrubbing away when the stylus slid onto “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me),” and within seconds I was motionless, holding a sudsy plate in mid-air.
At the time, “Make Me Smile” represented two very incorrect things to me: 1) an obscure pop gem, and 2) a love song. This was a point in my life when the Internet bored me, and I referred to it only for concert listings and homework assignments. The result was a lot of misinformation and the over-mythologizing of my father’s record collection. I assumed everything he owned was rare, and while some of it was, Best Years was certainly not. A pop gem it was, triumphant with its gospel-like backing vocals, beaming synths, and unlikely acoustic guitar solo – but considering the chart-topping tenure of the single, it’d be a stretch to call this record “obscure.”
On this very day in 1975, “Make Me Smile” reached No.1 on the UK singles chart, where it remained for two weeks. It has since entered the Top 10 in 15 different countries and sold around 1.5 million copies. In other words, it’s about as obscure as the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown.”
“Make Me Smile” is also about as far from a love song as you can get. I was unaware of this when five years after first hearing it, I put it on a sappy mixtape for my first New York boyfriend. Maybe it was a self-addressed omen that things wouldn’t end well between us. “Make Me Smile” was written about a relationship, just not a romantic one. It was a snide and biting reproach of Harley’s former bandmates – the original Cockney Rebel. Last year, Harley spoke to The Guardian about the making of his biggest hit. “In 1974, my band Cockney Rebel were on a roll,” he said. “We’d had hits with Judy Teen and Mr. Soft and a sold-out UK tour had generated hysteria. At some venues, police on horseback were needed to get us out. It was every young man’s dream. Or so I thought.”
That roll came to a skid when three of Harley’s bandmates asked if they could start writing songs, hoping to receive a bigger slice of income in the future. “Not for this band,” Harley told them. With that, the band members walked out, just before the group was scheduled to play Reading festival. Rather than pull out of the prestigious event, Harley reformed Cockney Rebel with all new members, retaining the original drummer, who’d remained loyal to Harley.
Harley felt utterly betrayed by his former bandmates, and whether or not that feeling was justified (it seems a bit despotic to not let musicians express their creativity and then expect them to stick around) he channeled that perceived mutiny into one of most gorgeous kiss-offs in rock history. Produced by prog rock messiah and studio wizard Alan Parsons (who engineeredAbbey Road, Let It Be, The Dark Side of the Moon, and countless other important records), “Make Me Smile” is as dense musically as it is lyrically. Sonically it’s chewy, with false stops, lush harmonies, and a rubbery bassline that counters starship synth swells. Its words are no more modest, featuring veiled insults and biblical allusion. In the first verse, Harley croons, “You spoilt the game, no matter what you say/For only metal – what a bore.” Harley claims that this line “is a biblical reference. Metal is money: it’s Judas and 30 pieces of silver.”
Melodramatic? To be certain. Though despite Harley’s self-proclaimed egotism in his younger years (he was only 23 when The Best Years of Our Lives was released), there is a sense of genuine heartbreak when he sings that sky-high chorus: “Come up and see me, make me smile/Or do what you want, running wild.” Harley admitted to The Guardian that he looks at the events leading up to his hit song differently now. “We’d all been young and brash and arrogant,” he said. “But later I felt sorry for [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the original members of Cockney Rebel]. It must have been difficult watching me singing that song on Top of the Pops.” Steve Harley must know better than anyone, that the best form of revenge is success.
By the time you read this, I’ll be home. Not the home I’ve made for nearly a decade – not New York home. I’ll be “home” with a big “H.” The “home” Carole King sang of in “Home Again,” the home James Joyce fled but could never stop writing about, the home of countless poems and plays.
It’s not controversial to say that most songs are about love in some capacity, but I would wager that music about home – whether leaving or returning – makes up a hefty portion of the American songbook as well. Some say there’s no place like it, some say you can never go back to it, but everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter.
I recently conducted a small and unscientific social media survey attempting to crowdsource peoples’ favorite songs about home. This is something I frequently do for various reasons, including a desire for musical diversity, and plain ol’ laziness. But of all my little studies, I’ve never been met with so many responses as this one produced. Home is clearly a topic that hits, well, home.
But why? The participants in my study don’t have too much in common, so their suggestions were all over the sonic spectrum. The only consistent factor between the contributors is that each of them has left home; none of them currently reside in the place they grew up. That seems to be the defining aspect for music about home as well – the longing needs the leaving. How can you miss something, how can you return to something, unless you’ve left it to begin with? In fact, the only song I’ve found thus far about just staying at home is Dolly Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home.” But only the angelic Ms. Parton could be wise enough to appreciate what she has in the moment – the rest of us must lose it first.
While I love and respect Dolly’s depiction of home, I sure as hell can’t relate to it. “Church on a Sunday” and “June bugs on a string” are foreign things to me, about as foreign as Tennessee itself. Bob Dylan’s 1961 “I Was Young When I Left Home” however, strikes quite a chord. “I was young when I left home,” Dylan cries. “And I been out a’ramblin’ ‘round/And I never wrote a letter to my home.” This early-career track captures a far more familiar feeling than Parton’s jovial country ballad. While Dolly evokes domestic satisfaction, Dylan unmasks guilt.
Guilt, along with a strong cocktail of superiority and shame, seem to be the base ingredients for songs about home. Dylan’s portrayal of guilt came in the form of negligence – the thought that while, and perhaps because you are off making a life for yourself, the people you left behind are suffering: “It was just the other day/I was drinkin’ on my pay/When I met an old friend I used to know,” Dylan continues. “He said your mother’s dead and gone/Your baby sister’s all gone wrong/And your daddy needs you home right away.”
The call home is something many of us will experience at some stage in our lives, and it is always a strange beckoning. Revisiting the point of origin you love or hate, or love and hate, is an exercise in ambivalence. We miss home, and we dread home. We want to pay our respects to the cities that birthed us, but we also want to look good for it like home is an old flame; we want to let it know we’re doing just fine without it. As Dylan sings, “Not a shirt on my back/Not a penny on my name/Well I can’t go home this a’way.” The thought of returning to our doorstep worse off than when we left it seems humiliating.
I was young when I left home, too, but “home” for me has always been a fragmented thing. Before I left for New York, I’d lived in nine different houses, and my parents have since moved into their tenth, then eleventh, abode (oddly enough, I sometimes think I moved to New York to settle down). When I “go home,” it isn’t technically going home. The remnants of my childhood belongings are in boxes, save for some clothing hung in the closet and records parked in my dad’s collection. I don’t really have a childhood home, but this is more of a blessing than you might realize. For instance, my childhood home will never burn down. I will never have to sell my childhood home, or squabble over its title with siblings. I will never watch it decay or become condemned – because it doesn’t exist. Home for me has never been a house – it has never been measured in shingles or siding, but in people and meals and songs. I remember when interviewing Bill Callahan last summer I asked what made him feel at home. “My wife,” he said. “My nylon string guitar if that’s all I got to hold on to. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill.”
Similarly, my version of home resides more in my father’s jumbo 6-string guitar than any midcentury bungalow or wrap-around porch. My dad hasn’t owned a home since 1998, and his rentals have been numerous. Some were even pretty badass – one had a pool table and a hot tub, but while the billiard balls and Jacuzzi did not travel on, the instruments and 4,000 LPs always have. When moving, the turntable and albums were always the first things to be unpacked and set up properly.
Still, “home” encompasses a lot more than just the nuclear family and its hearth. It’s the surrounding town too, and for me that’s the tricky part. The dissonance of visiting a place you never quite belonged is best depicted in songs like Catch Prichard’s “You Can Never Go Home Again” and Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons.” Songs like these remind us that home is a construct; it is a perfect merging of time and nostalgia that you can never physically return to. Foley was well aware of this fact when he sang, “I could build me a castle of memories/Just to have somewhere to go.”
It’s a troubling thought, but maybe we’re so intrigued by the idea of returning home because we want to be rewarded for escaping it in the first place. Look at movies like Garden State and Columbus, or really, any flick about self-righteous, post-collegiate white people returning home to assert their superiority over the ‘townies’ they left behind. Music has a far more graceful relationship with home I reckon, but one can’t help but notice the conflict residing in cuts like “A Long Way From Home” by The Kinks. “I hope you find what you are looking for with your car and handmade overcoats,” Ray Davies snipes. “But your wealth will never make you stronger ’cause you’re still a long way from home.”
Perhaps it is the artists who fled home so quickly that spend the most time singing about it; those who are never home, who are in constant motion, are the ones continuously pondering stillness. Or maybe home is so appealing because the future is always so uncertain. To quote another Kinks song about home, “This Time Tomorrow”: “I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t want to see.”
My earliest memories of dance involve ballet – or at least my sloppy stab at it. More than actual dancing, I remember the shined and scuffed Marley flooring; that pleated, boiled-wool skirt flopping over Ms. Burgwin’s sad calves; and most of all, the utter confusion as to why the hell my fellow ballerinas and I weren’t wearing tutus and tiaras at all times. Was ballet not princess training after all? Was I in the wrong room?
Ballet class was a rigid environment that, even at five, I failed to see the point of. I thought I wanted to learn ballet…but what I actually wanted was something far less dignified: to simply prance around while wearing a fluffy pink outfit. Why an overbearing septuagenarian was constantly shouting at us about prancing around in fluffy pink outfits, I never understood. So when my older sister decided to leave the hobby behind, I followed in her pointy pink footsteps. It was only after abandoning ballet that my first memory of enjoying dancing surfaced, featuring my older siblings and I bouncing around in the kitchen to the entirety of Cake’s Fashion Nugget and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” I realized from an early age that kitchen dancing was a lot more fun than ballet, and required a sense of humor, to boot.
Perhaps my conflicted relationship with dancing was born of those two polarities: the super-structured, formal lessons vs. the more primal movin’ and shakin’. The former must be rehearsed and perfected, while the latter demands almost nothing of the body. Simply acquiesce to the music, and the rhythm will move your limbs for you.
Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 22 (with the exception of a brief foray into swing dancing) I became a kind of non-dancer. This could largely be blamed on my punk rock leanings, which forbade any attempt at social normality like, say, school dances. Not only had I embargoed myself from musical genres outside of punk music, I had slow-cured and hardened into a person that no one in his or her right mind would invite to a school dance; and no one did… until I moved to a new high school.
Woodinville High School’s Homecoming soiree of 2006 would be the first and last school dance for me. Some of the evening’s most memorable factors were countless Black Eyed Peas hits, dinner at Olive Garden, and my date Kevin’s parents, who chauffeured us around in their totally dope Kia Sedona. While at the dance itself, I almost incited a riot after approaching the DJ and requesting that he play “some swing music,” which prompted a six-minute electro-swing mash up only I boogied to. People were shouting angrily, looking around for the culprit (me) as if someone had let out an acrid fart and its creator had to be identified for purposes of justice.
I didn’t dance in public again for years. You could say I forgot how to dance. This amnesia was a result of a few things. 1) The aforementioned investment in punk music that only allowed for “slam dancing,” in which the word “dancing” is used very loosely. 2) Lack of venues. Where was I supposed to dance as an underage kid in a small town? 3) Music choice. Had I been a tween, teen or young adult in the ‘60s, I could have done the twist. I would have warmly welcomed the discotheques of the 1970s, or the techno clubs of the 1990s. But no, it was the mid 2000s. What was I supposed to think of dance music in a time of The Pussycat Dolls and Paris Hilton’s cover of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”? I had to become a “Private Dancer,” but not in the way Tina Turner meant it.
I began to dance in secret. In high school, I’d do it before my parents got home from work. In college, I’d wait for all three of my roommates to vacate the apartment, before putting on “Face To Face” by Daft Punk, or “Suspended In Gaffa” by Kate Bush. Those two artists were particularly helpful in getting my body to move, especially Bush, whose sweeping, avant garde pop music lends itself to wild and unstructured flailing quite nicely. I would play entire albums by these artists and dance around my kitchen and living room in the midst of doing dishes, rolling on the dining room table, leaping past the confused cat, and only occasionally breaking something.
It was cathartic, this silly thrashing of limbs. But where could I find this perfect cocktail of adequate space and music I actually liked? Certainly not in da clubs of the Meatpacking District. Where does one go to, as Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay once sang, “just dance”? Not a place to be seen, not a place to meet dudes – a place to just dance.
In an attempt to quench this new thirst of mine, I started trying out a couple of different dance classes – mostly because dancing is the best way to trick myself into exercising. Unfortunately, I found that even amateur classes at the YMCA run on the same, overly disciplined air as my old ballet lessons, and on top of that, they are filled with dancers. Or, as I should say, !!!DANCERS!!!. You know, the chick wrapping her feet at the afternoon Zumba class. She wants you to know, she is no mere Zumba dabbler, but a !!!DANCER!!!. These classes always reveal themselves as a special circle of hell, in which I am not the graceful interpretive genius sashaying across the kitchen while holding a rose whisk betwixt my teeth, but a clumsy lump of flesh that doesn’t know left from right.
So I ask you: is there a secret Kate Bush dance night I don’t know about? Can someone please start one?
There is one place I have found that meets my criteria of good music + people I don’t hate + ample space, however: the wedding. About two years ago, one of my best friends got married, and was gracious enough to make sure her guests were plied with ample booze and good tunes. It was perhaps one of the first times this group of pals had seen me dance, despite the fact that I met them in 2009. Though dateless, I did everything I could to make up for the last decade or so of burying my need to boogie. Half of my friends were horrified and confused (or as I like to think, totally jealous of my moves), but one of them got it. She leaned in, looked me in the eye and said, “You are a dance machine.”
Anyone who’s worked in retail can tell you what a headache Christmas carols can be. You’re working eight hour shifts surrounded by irate customers who forgot the meaning of holiday cheer in a rush to get presents for their shitty boyfriends and picky sisters. These people have no regard for the fact that you’re stuck in a mall neatly folding the pile of t-shirts they just demolished instead of out getting sloshed with your friends or exchanging gifts with your loved ones. And all the while, that awful Mariah Carey song is just blaring. Over and over and over again.
I’m of the opinion that not even David Bowie could save “Little Drummer Boy” from being the most annoying piece of music ever composed, and that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is basically a rape-carol. But that doesn’t mean the whole Christmas catalogue is a lost a cause. There have been a handful of songs (usually lesser known and therefore less overplayed) that can still manage to put me in the holiday spirit instead of making me want to gouge my eyes out with a nutcracker. These are my personal favorites.
The Kinks – Father Christmas: Somewhere along the line, I stopped asking my parents for gifts around the holidays and started requesting practical things instead: a trip to the dentist, a gift card to Target, rent money. These things would keep me alive whereas candles from the Dollar Store would not. So I am not sure if I side with Ray Davies or the antagonistic children who mug him while he was playing Santa, but choosing sides isn’t the point. On the one hand, threatening violence is not cool, children can be terrifying, and machine guns are not appropriate gifts. But what these kids really want is jobs for their dads or the cold hard cash that will allow them to survive their harrowing, impoverished existences, rather than dolls or blocks or whatever. They’re just trying to check some volunteer Santa’s privilege (and ours) by reminding us that there are plenty of folks out there who can’t put food on the table at Christmastime (or any other time). But this isn’t some depressing ballad; the message comes in a catchy rock ‘n’ roll wrapping, its riffs Xmassed up with some cheery chimes that make a nice foil for Davies’ ragged snarl.
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn: The thing about Sufjan is that all of his songs are about 10,000% better if you just imagine he’s a singing unicorn. And from the first line of this song, he presents himself as not just any unicorn, but a Christmas unicorn, with a mistletoe nose and a shield and a gold suit. Sounds cool right? But wait: Sufjan as the Christmas Unicorn is actually a symbol for American hypocrisy, out-of-control consumerism, Christians adopting Paganism, Baby Jesus, drug addiction and insanity. But this outlandish gem from last year’s epic (what isn’t epic with Sufjan?) Christmas-themed limited edition six LP vinyl boxset Silver & Gold doesn’t stop there. It goes on for twelve minutes and gets so weird it needs a play-by-play. After the introductory takedown of hodgepodge Anglo-American Christian-Pagan ideals, there’s an expansive instrumental break that falls somewhere between swirly space rock and something you’d imagine playing over loudspeakers at a Ren-faire, flutes and all. About halfway through, the meandering melody grows pegasus wings and starts flapping around all wildly a la those choruses from “Chicago”. And eight minutes in, it becomes a Christmasified cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. This song is the best kind of holly-jolly trainwreck.
Joni Mitchell – River: Easily one of the most gorgeous songs in Mitchell’s oeuvre (and of all time, pretty much), the power of “River” lies in Mitchell’s ability to evoke nostalgia via her contemplative lyrics and her timeless voice. She’s alone on Christmas due to perceived failures on her part, ruminating on a recent breakup and feeling detached from the festive mood of the approaching holiday. It’s an anthem for any adult’s first Christmas away from home, the first holiday where those carefree childhood days have faded and you can no longer escape all the grown-up responsibilities you have in the simple act of lacing up a pair of skates and taking to the ice. Extra points on the shout out to all the evergreens slaughtered for the sake of Christmas spirit.
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses had two songs. One was the theme song for “Square Pegs” which famously starred Sarah Jessica Parker (before she was famous). And the other is this Blondie-esque narrative about a semi-Scroogey girl having a frustrating holiday/life. See, all year long she’s been bumping into this cutie, and because of her first world problems (like sunburn – ugh!) she’s never actually able to connect with him. The daily stresses keep piling up until she just, like, can’t even with Christmas. I mean, her turkey was all in the oven and she forgot cranberries! But in a fateful trip to the only all-night grocery, she finally finds love; her crush is in the check-out line, having also totally fucked up his grocery shopping. Bright brass and zippy guitar lines are the perfect accent for this tale of bitterness diminished by serendipitous Christmas magic.
The Sonics – Don’t Believe In Christmas: While it seems like any number of bands (especially those on the Burger Records roster) might write a song like this today, it was released in 1965, a decidedly un-scuzzy era for rock n’ roll. It’s snarky and skeptical and goes beyond greedy to straight up entitled, moving about a mile a minute all the while. When you don’t get cool presents or kisses from the ladies, there’s simply no reason to celebrate. Ironically, the single finds its home on an Etiquette Records compilation entitled Merry Christmas, also featuring The Sonics’ singular contemporaries The Wailers and Galaxies. Most of the songs are brilliant originals completely overlooked every December. It makes sense that they don’t play The Wailers’ scathing anti-consumerist romp “Christmas Spirit???” in Saks Fifth Avenue but “She’s Coming Home” and “Maybe This Year” evoke melancholic hope with a slightly psych-tinged execution. That sound carries over into the Galaxies’ unique covers of Christmas favorites. Elsewhere on the record, Santa stiffs The Sonics once again; lead singer Gerry Roslie asks the titular Claus to bring new guitars, money and babes in his sack but gets “Nothin’! Nothin’! Nothin’!”, according to Roslie’s embattled cries. Looks like not believing in Christmas didn’t stop the guy from trying.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Happy Xmas (War Is Over): Shortly before the rest of The Beatles started recording Christmas fluff, John Lennon furthered his anti-Vietnam War protest efforts by releasing this 1971 single featuring Yoko Ono and Harlem Community Choir. Lennon believed that coating the political content in sweet, sugary Christmassiness would make his message easier to accept (his Christmessage?). It was not an instant classic, but endures today as a reminder that we should all just get along. It also reminds us that the English say “Happy” instead of “Merry” which shouldn’t fuck with my head as much as it does. The track was produced by Phil Spector (who certainly did not get along with Lana Clarkson, the actress whom he murdered). If you’re going to listen to traditional carols, though, you can do no better than 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records on Spector’s label. There’s even a bearable version of “Frosty the Snowman” by the Ronettes.
The Everly Brothers – Christmas Eve Can Kill You: It’s not just the twangy pedal steel that gives this song its melancholy mood. Its emotionally devastating lyrics are narrated by a sad hitchhiker trying to catch a ride on a frigid Christmas Eve, ignored by drivers in a hurry to get home to their families. The moral of the story is that you should really be kind to your fellow man, especially in the winter, and even more especially on holidays. But let’s also be real – it’s actually dangerous to pick up hitchhikers; they can kill you too.
The Fall – (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas: Okay, so this bizarre offering from The Fall is way more cryptic and terse than say, “Dashing Through The Snow” – what is a Protein Christmas anyway? We may never know. It’s a reference to (and a rewrite of) “Proteinprotection” but, just like a previous episode of Lost, we had no idea what was going on the first time around either and were basically left hanging without answers to the mystery. It might have something to do with DNA, or aliens, or both. But Mark E. Smith’s atonal poetics and Scizophrenic laughter punching through meditative, repetitive bass rhythms make for a great debate winner with your punk friends who think they’re too cool for Christmas.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – There Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects: No one’s gonna make a fool out of Sharon Jones. Least of all her mother, with that trifling explanation of how presents wound up under her Christmas tree. Replete with a jazzy sax solo that revisits “Jingle Bells”, this groovy soul number from the prolific funk revivalists takes a cynical look at all the continuity errors in the Santa myth while simultaneously pointing out economic inequalities that don’t simply end with a lack of fireplaces in housing developments.
The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo: In this hazy, lazy jam from Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne sings about freeing animals from the zoo Brad-Pitt-in-12-Monkeys style. Zoos are sad fucking places, it’s true, but something about listening to this song is akin to flipping through and filling in a coloring book with your most psychedelic crayons. Rubbery guitars waver like the bars bent back on peacock cages, trumpets sound like liberated elephants. Coyne’s Christmas obsession didn’t fizzle after the release of the song in 1995; they released a secret Christmas album in 2007, re-recording one of the tracks (“Atlas Eets Christmas”) four years later with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. And then there’s Christmas on Mars, a film Coyne wrote, directed, and starred in with other members of the Lips. It debuted at Sasquatch Festival in 2008.
Joey Ramone – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight): This is the only worthwhile selection on Joey’s 2002 Christmas Spirit… In My House EP. It’s got to be one of the few Ramones-related songs that separates “want” and “to” instead of using the stylized “wanna”; I was under the impression that the Ramones had no idea such a thing could be done. Yet here it is, right at the intersection of Christmas cheer and heartfelt pleas to your significant other to end the bickering for once. The reason this song is listenable when the others on the EP are not is mainly because it hearkens back to Ramones glory days, only trading a bit of the usual grit for some shades of Doo-Wop and festive jangle.
Crocodiles/Dum Dum Girls – Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don’t Die): Dum Dum Girls’ collaborated with Crocodiles in a 2009 all-night recording session that resulted in this Yuletide look at love and mortality. Christmas, no joke, is a time when a lot of people struggle with depression, and this song is particularly sweet in that it addresses a lover who seems to have fallen prey to those demons. Real-life couple Dee Dee and Brandon Welchez take turns spreading the cheer in this garage pop jam, which should be enough to rouse even the saddest bopper.
Kishi Bashi – It’s Christmas, But It’s Not White Here In Our Town: In this short and swoony number, the multi-instrumentalist with a heart of gold longs for an idyllic, frost-covered wonderland, the reflections as dreamy and romantic as a tape on rewind. Kishi Bashi’s vocals are extra angelic, layered airily over sweet strings. It could have been a great opener for one of those claymation Christmas specials, maybe one in which the protagonist has to fight to save the town from a snow-less winter. But in a real-life heroic move, the musician donated all proceeds from sales of the snowflake-shaped flexi-disc to Ear Candy, a charitable organization that provides kids with used instruments.
The Pogues – Fairytale of New York: There really aren’t enough Christmas songs with the word “faggot” in them. JUST KIDDING, THERE’S ONE TOO MANY. Kirsty MacColl’s cavalier use of the epithet almost disqualified it from the list, but this song is a fixture on so many lists already because all anyone associates with it is ending up in the drunk tank on Christmas and those triumphant “And bells were ringing!” chorus declarations from Shane MacGowan. I considered including Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or The Vandals’ “My First Christmas (As A Woman)”, decided that the latter did more harm than good and that the former represents the kind of annoying things I hate about Christmas songs in the first place. Incidentally, there is no such thing as the NYPD choir. According to the song’s Wikipedia entry, the NYPD does have a Pipes and Drums unit but they didn’t know “Galway Bay” when they appeared in the video for “Fairytale”, playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme instead.
So there you have it. These songs go above an beyond the cloying carols dripping with good tidings. Whether political or personal, they represent a more thoughtful, far less narrow view of what Christmas is about, embracing the controversial and updating the conventional.
In other news, Iggy Pop wants you to have a happy holiday, or go swimming, or cuddle with his cockateel, or something.
While perceptions of LGBT musicians have evolved dramatically over the past few decades, the subject matter has been the stuff of some truly iconic songs (such as “Walk On The Wild Side,” a notable exclusion from this list due to its sheerly self-explanatory status). November 20th marks annual Transgender Remembrance Day, dedicated to raising awareness and memorializing those killed due to anti-transgender discrimination across the world. In honor of the occasion, AudioFemme has collected a list of songs that deal with the topic, or were created by artists identifying as transgender.
1. The Cliks – Dark Passenger: Canadian rock band The Cliks, who take their name from an amalgamation of the words “clit” and “dick,” were the first band with an openly transgendered lead singer to be signed to a major label. Energetic, hard-hitting soul rock dominate The Cliks’ sound. “Dark Passenger was released in May of this year, on the band’s album Black Tie Elevator.
2. JD Samson & MEN – Who Am I To Feel So Free:This track is fun, plain and simple. Former Le Tigre member JD Samson has extensively commented on her sexual minority status as a lesbian, but this single is—as you’d expect from the name—liberated and giddy.
3. Antony and the Johnsons – You Are My Sister: Antony Hegarty’s voice holds a reverberating, haunting appeal, backed here by soft strings and quietly building harmonies. “When I heard him,” Lou Reed has said of Hegarty, “I knew I was in the presence of an angel.” Hegarty, who never anatomically transitioned from male to female, embraces ambiguity and dissonance in his songwriting as well–refusing to shy away from contradictions, he lends his music and organic, somewhat mysterious slant, always leaving just a few spaces in his songs blank.
4. David Bowie – Rebel Rebel: Bowie’s 1974 classic, apparently the most covered track on Diamond Dogs, is noisy, rife with slapstick distortion, and filthy with the glam mode that he popularized in the early seventies. The song, due to its massive popularity, was revitalized and re-released in 1999 . After “Rebel Rebel” was written, Bowie moved almost instantly away from the glam movement that had been his brain child—the following single was “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
5. Geo Wyeth – I Am Chasing An Alien Light: Wyeth, a transgendered, NYC-based artist, makes wistful, exciting folk music that’s minimalist in style and radiates breathless optimism. Many of his tracks, including the one below, bear an alien theme, representative of his experience not only as a transgendered person, but as a musician whose songs don’t bear any direct relation to most of the other music going on around him.
6. Styx – I’m O.K.: “I’m O.K.” was released on the band’s 1978 Pieces Of Eight album. Beginning with a chorus of “heys” and a round of bouncing synthesizers, this track is one of the standout feel-good tracks on this list: Styx’s theatricality lends itself to a rousing, epic-sounding anthem.
7. Our Lady J – Hurt: Breathy, delicate synthesizers, close harmonies, both electronically engineered and non, and a sleek production finish dominate Our Lady J’s rendition of this song, originally performed by Nine Inch Nails (or Johnny Cash, depending on how you look at it). Our Lady J, a singer and pianist known for live performers and a masterful singing style, offers an entirely new take on the growling, stripped down original.
8. Against Me! – True Trans Soul Rebel: In 1997, Laura Jane Grace, then known as Thomas James Gabel, founded punk rock outfit Against Me! as a solo project, and quickly grew the band to a quartet. Fourteen years after Against Me! Was created, Grace publicly addressed her gender dysphoria and assumed a female name, continuing to perform with the band. In January of next year, Against Me! will release the first album to come out since Grace publicly announced herself to be transgendered. This summer, “True Trans Soul Rebel” was released as a single off the forthcoming album, displaying a more introspective, acoustic tendency that any we’ve seen in any Against Me! release thus far.
9. The Kinks – Lola: Released in 1970, The Kinks’ iconic single “Lola” is perhaps the best known song about a transgender experience in the world. Detailing a meeting between a young boy and the more experienced Lola, who is either a transvestite or is transgendered. Hard-rocking, story-telling and intensely singable, the song has spawned a bounty of live versions, a German version, a Greek version, a Dutch version, a Spanish version, and a Weird Al parody called “Yoda,” among many, many others.
10. Garbage – Queer: Garbage has performed an array of songs dealing with queer-oriented subject matter, and this is one of the best. Snarling harmonies combine with lead singer Shirley Manson’s angelic vocals and disenchanted lyrics.
11. Bitch and Animal – Boy Girl Wonder: Steeped in the queercore scene, Bitch and Animal apply an insightful, often improvisatory, take to the genre. “Boy Girl Wonder” favors the story-telling aspect of the song, accompanied by an extremely minimalistic acoustic guitar for the first two minutes and twenty seconds of the song, before sharp, embittered electric guitar cuts into the track.“The boy girl wonder from Queens,” Bitch screams over reverberating chords, proving she can escalate to a howl—or drop down to a purr—on a dime.
12. Wayne County and the Electric Chair – Fuck Off: Wayne County, now known as Jayne County, holds the title of rock’s first transsexual singer. County moved to London as the punk scene there was burgeoning, in 1977, and formed a group, releasing “Fuck Off” shortly thereafter. Jayne County never received critical acclaim, despite several releases, a tour, and even a book entitled Man Enough To Be A Woman. “Fuck Off” is a song whose time, perhaps, has come.
13. The Velvet Underground – Candy Says: With lyrics like “Candy says ‘I’ve come to hate my body/and all that it requires in this world,’” The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” represents one of rock’s most tender and intricate portraits of a transgendered woman. This soft, sorrowful song portrays Candy so vividly because she was, in fact, a real person (that would be Candy Darling, who starred in multiple Warhol films and died of lymphoma while still very young). Candy appears in other Velvet Underground songs as well, notably “Walk On The Wild Side,” but appears here in a fuller, much more poignant capacity.
Why not celebrate Transgender Remembrance Day with a donation to a worthy cause? The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, or SRLP, works to protect freedom in gender identification by providing legal services to fight against harassment. Go hereto donate. And post your additions to our playlist in the comments!