Each day between now and Christmas, we highlight one of the wierdest Christmas songs you'll ever hear. Today, it's the lone holiday track by an iconic classic rock band:
Released in 2013, this one-off Christmas single was produced by Boston founder/guitarist/studio wizard Tom Scholz and performed by him along with Kimberley Dahme, Gary Pihl, and Tom Hambridge. The single came on the heels of the release of "Life, Love & Hope," which was the band's first new music in more than a decade. Like the album, the Boston wall of guitar sound is evident in all its glory. Now if the rest of the track was even 20% as interesting as the riffs.
Drawn from the new Frankie Valli solo album 'Tis The Seasons,' this version of "Merry Christmas Baby" definitely qualifies as one of the oddest pairings of the holiday season. Valli is a lot of things, but bluesy is not one of them. So hearing the awkward interplay between Valli's classic (albeit weakened with age) falsetto and Beck's blues-tinged guitar licks is kind of like hearing a collaboration between New Kids On The Block and Slash. The result is a song that isn't terrible. It's just....odd.
If you were going to pick a band that would seem like a perfect fit for the MTV generation, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be far down on the list. In a visual medium, Tom Petty's long hair and angular looks seemed more suited something you'd see on a local car mechanic who spent all day reminiscing about that time in college when he had a rock band.
And yet, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended up being one of the biggest bands of the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to a long string of incessantly hook-filled songs and a Byrds-inspired sound that always seemed distinctive and pure. When you heard a Tom Petty song for the first time, it sounded both fresh and yet timeless. Just another classic track from a band that was everywhere in pop culture during the height of the MTV Video age.
But that's just part of the story chronicled in the sprawling 2007 documentary "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream," which is currently available on Netflix. Put together by the famed director Peter Bogdanvich, the film interweaves tons of vintage footage, interviews and then current stories from Tom Petty and the rest of the band into an extensive recounting of the band's ups-and-downs.
And with a runtime of nearly four hours, I'm not kidding when I say it's extensive. It takes an hour to get to the point of the story where the band breaks big in the U.S. thanks to the song "American Girl." That might seem a bit much for anyone who's not a Tom Petty superfan, but it's a reflection of Bogdanovich's talent that the four hours fly by when you're watching. For all of the career highs, there are also as many personal challenges and the film covers all of them in sometimes painful detail.
Petty could be a cantankerous guy when he felt he was being wronged and there's something fitting about the fact an extended battle with his music label almost meant his career-topping third album "Damn The Torpedos" could have easily never been released. At one point, Petty has someone taking the tapes of the album's sessions and hiding them every night so the music label can't seize them. It's a crazy story, but one that also epitomizes the drive and anger that sometimes drove Petty.
As it turns out, the extended focus on the early years of the band, especially an early attempt at success under the name "Mudcrutch" pays off unexpectedly, given what happened with Petty's career after this film was made. After Mudcrutch broke up, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell stayed on and became the foundation of the Heartbreakers. But apparently Petty had always regretted having to let go original Mudcrutch band members Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon. So in 2007, Petty reformed Mudcrutch and released an album. He briefly toured with the band and they later released a second album in 2016.
And then there's the fact that while more recent Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers albums didn't get a lot of radio airplay, they sold well. In fact, the band's 2014 release "Hypnotic Eye" was their first album to ever open at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. It's an interesting twist to the story and it's too bad there isn't an updated version of the documentary available now that he has died.
Still, "Tom Petty: Runnin' Down A Dream" is an excellent look at one of the great American rock singers and bands. It's easy to forget just how many hits they had over the years and how important their sound was to the fabric of popular music. As someone notes in the documentary, "You can hear them play for two-and-a-half hours and you'll know every song."
Some of the songs I've been choosing for my daily "Wierdest Of Christmas" posts really are best described as terribly inept attempts to provide a little holiday spirit. The singing is clunky, the instrumentation is overblown or the finished track is just boring.
And then there are those tunes that aren't bad in the traditional sense of the word. There are some Christmas singles that are so magnificently insane that they transcend what we think of as good or bad music. They might be catchy and you may even sing along to them. But as you do, you'll feel both joyous and embarrassed.
One Christmas song that neatly fits into that category is the 1996 Randy Bachman track "Takin' Care Of Christmas." The song was a bonus track recorded for the album "Randy Bachman Songbook," which featured re-recorded versions of songs Bachman had written and recorded while being part of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. One of BTO's biggest hits was "Takin' Care Of Business," which might have one of the most distinctive guitar riffs of the classic rock era. And for whatever reason, Bachman thought it was a good idea to recreate that song, while changing the lyrics to make it a Christmas tune.
The result is a track that manages to be both ear candy as well as infuriating. You can't help but sing along, but you also hate the fact that you can't resist. Now the fact that Bachman recorded an all-Christmas album in 2008 that also included this song must mean some people loved it. And I'll admit, I've listened to the track a lot this week. I just hate myself for doing so.
I recently saw a list of albums and musicians from the 1970s voted most important by a group of rock critics and music fans. Joe Cocker didn't make the list, which is shocking given that in the early 1970s, he was arguably the hottest male rock singer in America. The fact that he's so easily forgotten - and that he's not even in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - is a reflection of his decade-long meltdown and all those highs and lows are wonderfully chronicled in the documentary "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul."
Cocker's career exploded when he recorded a balls-out, screaming version of The Beatles tune "With A Little Help From My Friends." He forever changed the song in listener's eyes and he performed the same magic on The Box Tops hit "The Letter." He was a man of immense talent and by all accounts a warm and articulate man. Up until the point he decided to launch his first tour of America. He hired Leon Russell to put together the band and the music and the result was a circus called the "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" tour. There were sometimes as many as 40 people onstage and when the tour was over Cocker found himself in Los Angeles. He was broke, addicted to heroin and drinking non-stop. And while his career later recovered, he battled addictions most of his life.
Unfortunately, Cocker died in 2014, so the documentary doesn't have any recent interviews with him. But "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" does have lots of vintage performance footage, backstage interviews and comments from just about everyone Cocker ever worked with. There are also some great comments from Cocker's longtime wife of 38 years, who paints another side of Cocker in those rare times when he wasn't on tour. They owned a rambling ranch in the mountains of Colorado and the photos of Cocker, covered in dirt and showing off some tomato he grew in his garden is pretty amazing.
There are tons of touching stories in the film, but the one that stuck with me was one from a former friend and bandmate who lost touch with Cocker after his mid-1970s meltdown. "I hadn't talked with him in a couple of years. I'm out of the business and on the radio I hear him singing 'You Are So Beautiful.' I just pulled the car and cried."
If I have one complaint about the film, is that for whatever reason it doesn't include the memorable "Saturday Night Live" performances by John Belushi. By the time Belushi was doing his impressions of Cocker, the singer was a bit of a joke in the industry. He had a reputation for missing concerts or not being able to perform when he did show up. Belushi did this spot-on impression of Cocker and after a couple of the appearances on the show, Cocker showed up one night to sing with Belushi in some surreal Battle-of-the-Cockers. The fact Belushi was able to do Cocker better than the man himself is perhaps the clearest indication of just how far he had fallen by the late 1970s.
But aside from that one small criticism, I can't think of a better legacy for Joe Cocker than this documentary. It's honest about Cocker's flaws, but it also provides ample reminders of just how magical he was at the height of his talent.
"Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul" is available now on Netflix.