The FOMM alt-Christmas playlist

Alt-Christmas-playlist
Alt-Christmas playlist Santa escaping shopping centres to go fishing in Ewen Maddock Dam, photo by Bob Wilson

The first thing you’ll notice about my carefully curated alt-Christmas playlist is the absence of Six White Boomers and The 12 Days of Christmas. I’ll walk out of the room if someone starts on that tedious epic. I was intending to write a Grinch-like piece this week, but instead decided to share my eclectic view of the world through an alt-Christmas playlist.

What set me off on this tangent, dear reader, was making visits to three different shopping centres in the past three weeks. It wasn’t so much the crowds, the noise, the proliferation of tattoos or the inappropriate wardrobe choices that got me down. It was being assailed, or should that be wassailed on all sides by different streams of Christmas music. It ranged from Bing and that tired old northern hemisphere trope to Jose Feliciano wishing us a merry one from the heart of his bottom.

For someone whose preferred background music is Bach or Riley Lee playing the shakuhachi, it is an assault on the senses. It seemed to me, though, that most people were oblivious to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, as they trudged around shopping centres at Carindale, North Lakes and Morayfield. In fact, as their laden trolleys would indicate, they seemed intent upon spending.

A survey this week by finder.com.au reckons Australian shoppers will spend $492 (each) on Christmas gifts alone. Women will apparently spend $58 more than men. Finder’s Bessie Hassan said the 2017 spending estimate was slightly lower than 2016, when Australians spent on average $539 on Christmas presents.

The shopping swarms were probably to be expected, given the 3.6% rise in the consumer confidence index between November and December. The Westpac Melbourne Institute’s Index is 5% above the average for the September quarter, which saw a ‘disturbing’ slump in consumer spending.

While consumer confidence may have bounced back at a critical time for retailers and their landlords, the keepers of the index are circumspect.

“…with ongoing weak income growth, a low savings rate and high debt levels, we cannot be confident that consumers have the capacity to sharply lift spending, despite higher confidence.”

The irony of my three visits to large shopping centres is, had I planned ahead to buy the small but well-chosen gifts, I could have done it online and saved myself the grief.

So to the FOMM alt-Christmas playlist; they’re not all leftie, anti-Christmas rants and there’s a thread of peace and love running through all of them.

There are a couple of genuine carols, a peace anthem or two, some Australian content and more.

My music correspondent Franky’s Dad offered to create a Spotify alt-Christmas play list for me. Until he did that, I had not subscribed to Spotify. (Hands up who else has no idea what ‘Spotify’ is. Ed.) Unlike many list stories you will find on the Internet, these songs are not in order of preference. I happen to like all of them, but feel free to disagree or tell me which alt-Christmas song I should have included instead.

All of the links here are to YouTube videos. Just dip into them as the spirit moves you. For those who have Spotify, here’s the link:

1/ The Little Drummer Boy, interpreted here by my favourite acapella group, Pentatonix. If you like the group and this genre of music, they do a splendid version of Jolene with songwriter Dolly Parton.

2/ River, by Joni Mitchell. Ah, what a wistful, sad song. They’re cutting down trees and putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. But Joni just wants a river to skate away on (as you do if you live in Canada).

3/ Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, a bawdy anti-Christmas ballad of drunkenness and fractious relationships. I like the bit where the boys from the NYPD sing Galway Bay. A classic.

4/ I’m growing a beard downstairs for Christmas, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Beards. This quirky, M-rated Christmas satire won the best Comedy/Novelty song category in the 2015 International Songwriting Competition.

5/ 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, Simon & Garfunkel, 1966. Half a century later, this timeless carol’s theme of peace and goodwill is still being drowned out by the negativity of global news.

6/ Suddenly it’s Christmas Loudon Wainwright III. Yep, it starts with Halloween (forget about Thanksgiving, that’s just a buffet in between). As Loudo sings – it’s not over till it’s over and they throw away the tree.” The Spotify version is a remix, but the impudent tone is still there.

7/ Happy Xmas (War is Over). One of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s many pleas for world peace.

8/ Getting Ready for Christmas Day, Paul Simon. From early in November to the last day of December, he’s got money matter weighing him down. Simon cleverly intersperses the lyric with a 1941 sermon, voiced by black American preacher, Rev J.M Gates.

9/ The Silver Stars, Brisbane Birralee Voices. This is an Australian carol by William James which has also been sung by our Maleny chamber choir, Tapestry.

10/ Little Saint Nick, the Beach Boys. I’ve got Macca from Australia all Over to thank for this as he played this merry tune to close out his show last week. It sounds a bit like a rebadged Little Deuce Coupe, but who’s complaining.

11/ How to Make Gravy, Paul Kelly. Where would we be in Australia without the letter to Dan from Joe, who’ll be spending Christmas in jail? Kiss my kids on Christmas Eve and make sure you add a dollop of tomato sauce to the gravy.

The Christians and the Pagans, Dar Williams. The definitive song about disaffected families and how they come together at Christmas and try to find common ground.

(Our friend Rebecca Wright does a cracker version of this one).

Meanwhile, people, there are only 2+ days more shopping days to spend your quota. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s Money Smart tells us that the average credit card debt after the holiday season is $1,666.  While 82% of Australians will pay this off in up to 6 months, 11% will take six to 24 months; 4% will take two years or more and 3% believe they will never pay it off.

If you are worried about waking up with a debt hangover, go here, where you’ll find helpful tips, It’s probably too late for this year, but as Loudon Wainwright observes, of all such holidays, ‘it’s not over till it’s over’.

Season’s Greetings and take care on the roads – Bob and Laurel.

Flashback to Christmas 2015

The autoharp, recorders and other rites of spring

autoharp-spring-recorder
Autoharp player Evan Mathieson at Dorrigo Folk and Bluegrass Festival. Photo: Lindsay Maa http://www.evanmathieson.net

As today is ostensibly the first day of Spring, I am cleaning up the music room, starting with a dusty old autoharp. Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from, I can’t tune it and don’t know how to play the autoharp in the first place. Yet it sits in the bottom of the cupboard, gathering cobwebs. Occasional bursts of enthusiasm about learning to play the instrument have all faded away. Like morning dew, if you will. When I catch up with Queensland folksinger and autoharp-maker Evan Mathieson (above) I might ask him what he thinks of my old relic.

The autoharp belongs to the zither family and in theory it is a cinch to play. Chords are played by pressing down on a felted bar which mutes all but the strings that make up the chord. You then lightly strum with the other hand. Start with a two or three chord-song like Catch the Wind or Banks of the Ohio.

The autoharp, though descended from a line of German instruments, was popularised in the American folk scene and taken up by some who later became pop stars. In 1965, John Sebastian’s band Lovin’ Spoonful had a hit with his song, Do you Believe in Magic. While Sebastian was highly regarded as an auto harpist and often played it on stage, it is not that discernible in this YouTube clip, although you can at least get a sense of how the instrument is played.

Do You Believe In Magic?

You’ll know the tinkling sound of the autoharp, even if you cannot describe the instrument or imagine how it is played. In 1979, the late Randy Vanwarmer’s lonesome ballad, You Left Me Just When I Needed You Most, was best known for its plaintive autoharp instrumental, played by John Sebastian.

I’m told that Queensland folksinger Evan Mathieson was inspired to start making his own instruments after hearing John Sebastian play a Bach piece on an autoharp. Hand-made instruments can be built to create chords not always available on commercially-made autoharps.

You can get caught up watching old (and new) clips on YouTube of people playing the autoharp. Dolly Parton’s there, so too Sheryl Crow, Maybelle Carter, Billy Connolly, Peggy Seeger and many more.

Crikey, they say even The Dude plays autoharp, though Jeff Bridges apparently prefers playing his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar when performing with his band, The Abiders.

American virtuoso Bryan Bowers (he’s in the Autoharp Hall of Fame), is credited with introducing the instrument to new generations of musicians. Lakes of Pontchartrain.

I’d love to say someone played autoharp on Song of the old Rake, from Paul Kelly’s Foggy Highway. Programme notes archived by the late lamented Lonely Planet, alas, inform us that Kelly’s band, the Stormwater Boys, used highly-tuned guitars to mimic the autoharp sound. They did it very well.

There are quite a few rock bands and recording artists who use autoharp in their arrangements, but none as effectively as PJ Harvey.

This is an unusual clip in that it starts with PJ alone in a room rehearsing The Words that Maketh Murder, then cuts back and forth between the band version and PJ alone in her room. The lyrics in this anti-war song (from Let England Shake) are brutal, so if you’re the sensitive type, don’t go there.

Evan Mathieson has made a life study of the instrument and also makes autoharps, complete with the signature ‘map of Australia’ sound hole. The instrument suits Evan’s strong baritone and is ideal for a solo act performing folk songs. I’m told he’s leading a shanty session at the Maleny Music Festival on Saturday night.

The music room in our house doubles as the collective home office in which many great decisions are made, petty arguments thrashed out (and where many of the 173 FOMMs were conceived). I believe there will be no argument from She Who is Also Spring Cleaning should I decided to give the autoharp away (SWiASP found a website for the Australian Children’s Music Foundation, which provides free instruments and lessons to disadvantaged children).

Hot cross buns, anyone?

Most homes harbour at least one musical instrument, upon which lessons were learnt and quickly forgotten. Recorders, harmonicas, ukuleles, tin whistles and guitars are the instruments most likely to have been bought on a whim and discarded once lessons got harder.

Most children have a stab at learning an instrument at school – usually a recorder as they are relatively easy to learn and affordable. Any parent who has endured the period where their child struggled to play the recorder without making the infamous ‘squeak’ might want to check out recordings by Maurice Steger. The world champion recorder player has taken on compositions by Vivaldi, Telemann, Handel and baroque music composed for the recorder.

As Steger told ABC Classic FM: “In its heart of hearts the recorder is an incredibly simple instrument and yet it is so hard to make it sound beautiful. That is what makes it so fascinating.”

So before your kids get bored playing ‘Hot Cross Buns’ and decide to pack the recorder away with the jigsaws and board games, get them to check out Steger’s amazing performance of Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto RV 443.

Recorders are much favoured by schools as they can be bought for less than $10 and immediately give teachers some idea if the pupil has musical aptitude. They are also much-loved by musicians who form early music ensembles (typically using tenor, alto, bass and contrabass recorders). Like the clarinet, the recorder can sound dire in the hands of someone who has no aptitude and/or no inclination to practice.

You may notice how I have digressed from the opening paragraph which claimed I was spring-cleaning the music room. Actually it’s not all that bad – a few years ago I threw out old capos, out of tune harmonicas, a rusty tin whistle, and mailed a parcel of used guitar strings to a charity that sends them to people who can’t afford to replace their guitar strings. There’s still a lot of stuff in the cupboards: boxes of (unsold) CDs, boxes full of demo and rehearsal CDs and cassettes. I always meant to go through the cassettes and convert them to digital files (MP3s). The problem with that is the process happens in real time. So we’re talking not about hours or even days, but more like months of drudgery. So much easier just to take it all to the tip.

I found a commercial cassette – the first Spot the Dog album. After converting it to CD, I asked if anyone wanted the cassette. Not even Mark Cryle (and it was his band’s first recording), took up the offer. He told me he already had a few sitting around at home.

As for the autoharp, after a fitful hour or two grappling with the tuning key and an electronic guitar tuner, I concluded the real issue is it needs new strings. I looked up prices at juststrings.com and figured that at $100+ I’ll just give it a vacuum and put it back in the cupboard.

It’s still not in tune.

 

One drink too many

one-drink-too-many
one-drink-too-many

The smell of Scotch makes me want to puke. That’s an astonishing thing for a Scot to say. Let’s call it a physical memory; traces of a bender with no recollections to go with the nauseating smell.

Our State of Origin friends gathered on Wednesday for food, wine, conviviality and (as it turned out), a fairly subdued evening as our team was soundly beaten. I’d forgotten to get some sparking mineral water or what we call “fake wine”. One of our guests brought a bottle of the latter and shared a glass. The alcohol-removed option is a rare treat because it is just as expensive as buying a bottle of wine.

It has been so long since alcohol touched my lips I rarely have to refuse alcohol when socialising.

“His is a ginger beer,” someone will say when we have choir wine nights. Most people just accept that I don’t drink. Years ago I went to lunch with a business contact who kept pressing me to drink, to the point where I said “Mate, you don’t need my approval. If you want another, have another.” We never went to lunch again.

Since I decided to stop drinking, circa 1984, I have never been tempted to start again. My (former) drinking mates would say “Oh well you obviously weren’t an alcoholic, then if you could just stop like that.” A couple of people I knew decided to quit around the same time. We never had the conversation because I rarely drank with those two. They had an enormous capacity while I was a two-pot screamer. If I started drinking wine or spirits after two or three beers, the night would be a write-off. As far as I’m aware, they did the 12 Steps and never fell off the wagon, which is universal parlance for starting to drink again.

I did go to an AA meeting once, in Auckland, circa something. The group comprised mostly rough-looking young men, a few teenage girls and a couple of middle-aged men and women you could pass in the supermarket and never think “Jeez, she looks like an alkie.”

One of the traits of a long-term alcoholic is to hide it from partners, children, extended family and friends. If friends and family enjoy a social drink, they will probably not notice you starting on the third bottle of wine.

AA impressed me because (a) it was anonymous (b) you could share your story and not feel as if you were being judged and (c) there was a cast-iron understanding that your story would not be told outside the room. I’d been an agnostic since my teenage years and decided that talking to God and following the 12 Steps was not going to work for me. I had a two-week break from drinking, decided to have a few at the weekly folk club and woke up next day not remembering anything from the night before. This was not a fuzzy, “Oh, now I remember” night. It was like someone had sliced a piece out of my brain and it never came back. Two weeks later (after another break) I got on another bender and the same thing happened. Next morning, the car was sitting in the driveway covered in mud.

It was so like the Paul Kelly song that emerged three or four years later:

“The sergeant asked me softly “Now do you recall?”
It all looked so familiar as though I’d dreamt it all;
I don’t remember a thing, I don’t remember a thing.”

(Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Under the Sun)

So I quit. She Who Likes a Social Drink was a bit pissed (sorry, annoyed), that I threw out the remains of a wine cask.

If I could recap the life I lived since that day 34 years ago, you could chart it on an Excel spreadsheet; my professional life, physical and mental health and creative life all on an upward trajectory. It was not, as I feared, that being sober would rob me of rich ideas for my songwriting and short fiction. The opposite occurred. I rediscovered the serenity which comes from long vigorous walks, during which I was writing things in my head. My performance as a husband, father and friend, however, was like Telstra shares, a good income provider, punctuated with periods of poor performance.

You may wonder what brought this on – it’s not an anniversary of anything, I’m not inclined to fall off the wagon, even though Queensland lost the State Of Origin and the Baby Broncos got thumped by The Warriors. Two things gave me pause to revisit my drinking days, where I’d get drunk quickly and cheaply, slowly beginning to understand (sometimes) that I was the only drunk person in the room and that my real friends were just putting up with me. A silly bore, but never obnoxious. We all know the obnoxious drunk; the kind who get in your face and insist that you (the sober one), must be some kind of wimp because you won’t take a drink.

The other triggering factor was a story in The Monthly which is ostensibly about AA (the organisation) but more about the author’s personal struggle with alcohol and how AA helps and maybe doesn’t help. The remarkable thing about Jenny Valentish’s story* is that it stands alone as critical essay about an 82-year-old organisation which is rarely scrutinised.

AA mean Alcoholics Anonymous, which means you can repent under a cloak of anonymity. You could be a big rock star or the chief executive of Very Big Inc and no-one knows or should know you are a recovering alcoholic. One of the precepts of AA is that you never ‘get over it’. You’re an alcoholic and one drink will bring you undone.

Valentish observes that AA has made no significant updates to its doctrine, despite “a growing mountain of evidence-based research”. AA won’t change its literature without the approval of 75% of members worldwide. Three addiction experts reviewed the Big Book in 1985. Psychologist Albert Ellis was concerned by the lack of emphasis on self-management.

“By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work or and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”

Valentish starts her essay by confessing to a relapse after seven years sober. She says AA helped her a lot when she stopped drinking the first time. But by AA’s rules, if you have a relapse, you have ‘failed’ and have to start the 12 Steps all over again.

The organisation holds the 12 Steps (based on Christian principles), to be sacrosanct and it seems to work for problem drinkers (if they are determined to stop).

So go ahead and have a drink while you watch the Roosters give the Baby Broncos a pasting. If you can stop at 2, jolly good luck. I never could.

*One Step Beyond by Jenny Valentish, page 46 The Monthly, June, 2017

A white Christmas for some

Eyeore Eukey July 2015
Eeyore takes shelter, Stanthorpe, Qld, July 2015. Photo by Penny Davies)

Composer Irving Berlin had a habit of staying up all night, writing songs. According to Mark Steyn’s A Song for the Season, Berlin summonsed his secretary one morning in 1940 saying: ‘Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!

That tune was White Christmas, which if you think about it, must have been a challenging assignment for the Jewish-born composer. The song first surfaced in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It was not an immediate success, but became a major hit by the end of 1942 as its wistful melancholia and homely images resonated with US forces caught up in WWII.

White Christmas is officially the best-selling song of all time (although there was a debate about that when Elton John recorded Candle in the Wind as a tribute to Lady Di). Fifty million copies of Bing’s version – which features a quaint second verse in which Bing does solo whistling – were sold. There have been 100 million copies sold, once the 632 cover versions are taken into account (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, P.J. Proby, Perry Como, Darlene Love, The Drifters, Karen Carpenter, Lady Gaga, the Crash Test Dummies and the Chicago Gay Men’s Choir, to name but a few). Full list at

According to songfacts, though most songwriters would have done hand-stands if Elvis Presley recorded anything they wrote, Berlin called the King’s 1957 cover a “profane parody”. His staffers were told to call radio stations and ask them not to play it.

Darlene Love was one of the few to sing Berlin’s original first verse (with its images of Los Angeles in summertime), on Phil Spector’s 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You. The first verse is missing from most popular versions including Crosby’s hit, which was initially released on a 78 record with its endearing opening line, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”

For the benefit of people under 60, a 78 was a heavy record made of shellac with one song on each side. It was played at 78 revolutions per minute, which accounted for the ‘scrtch scrtch’ sound, which 50 years later was adopted by DJs like a new idea.

My pop music history contact, Franky’s Dad, takes eclecticism to high art by playing two records on Christmas Day, the aforementioned Spector album and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. If you’re not familiar with Spector’s album, it is a collection of well-known Christmas songs sung by groups like the Ronettes and The Crystals, orchestrated with Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. It is said that a then unknown Cher features on backing vocals. The album has lasted and you can even find a downloadable version on Amazon.

As we are now straying into Bah Humbug territory, here’s the tip: if you are faithful to the Christian traditions of Christmas or are just sentimental about it, do not click on the links marked BH as they may offend.

There are myriad examples of musicians taking the piss and lapsing into bad taste and obscenity at Christmas-time. Among them are songs by Kevin Bloody Wilson, Tenacious D, Eric Idle, Weird Al Jankovic, Spinal Tap and Ren and Stimpy. Look them up if you must.

The thing about writing a Christmas song, be it melodic schmaltz like White Christmas or nuanced satire like the 2015 offering by Kate Miller Heidke and The Beards, there’s the potential there for a recurring earner.

In the movie About a Boy, Hugh Grant plays dissolute playboy Will Freeman, who gets by on the royalties from his late father’s one-off Christmas song, Santa’s Super Sleigh. The film was based on a book by Nick Hornby and subsequently spawned a TV series which only vaguely follows the plot line.

The real life royalty winner, White Christmas ($A50 million), is topped in earnings status only by Happy Birthday, written in 1893 by the Hill Sisters and said to have earned $A62 million in royalties, according to a BBC4 documentary. Even if those figures look impressive, that’s not what you’d call huge earnings for the songwriter. The earnings for Irving Berlin and his heirs from that one song amount to $480,000 a year since 1940.

Kate Miller-Heidke’s I’m Growing a Beard…, recorded with Melbourne band The Beards, despite its bouncy insouciance, can be interpreted as a feminist rant against the waxing fad (which is hopefully waning), but also has a go at blokes who wax (so they can wear spandex and go bike riding). Fear not, it’s for a good cause. If you pay for a download of the song (BH), the money goes to Bowel Cancer Australia.

If you were wondering why Christmas songs are cluttering my mind this particular Friday, our acapella choir, Tapestry, has a concert scheduled for this Sunday. We had a warm-up on Wednesday at the local nursing home.

Our repertoire is sufficiently high-brow to please the discerning music lover (Veni Veni Emmanuel, How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a beautiful Australian carol The Silver Stars, but with some old chestnuts tossed in – Rudolph and We Wish You A Merry Christmas).

Our version of Rudolph is, dare I say it, somewhat more melodic than this one by rapper DMX (Earl Simmons), inspired by Huffington Post’s 17 Best Worst Christmas Songs (2014).

If you dig around, you’ll find secular songs which have become popular for their own unique spin on Christmas. Franky’s Dad, who maintains a pop trivia website nominated Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy. You know the one: Joe’s in prison and he’s written to his brother Dan to make sure the gravy gets made right, although lots of other family emotions are stirred in with the flour, salt, red wine and tomato sauce. Likewise, Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacCall’s Fairytale of New York takes emotions on a sleigh ride. If it’s a message of peace you’re after, John and Yoko’s So This is Christmas is just about right, even if it sounds a lot like Stewball.

Twisted Sister’s Heavy Metal Christmas is, dare I suggest, more entertaining than any of the excruciating versions of TTDOC inflicted upon us by well-meaning carollers who persist with all 12 verses (and the five golden rings). BH

And for the pianists among the FOMM readership (there’s at least 40 exponents of the piano forte), here’s a Boxing Day challenge – an arrangement of Sleigh Ride in 7/8 time by John Eidsvoog.

Ah yes, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a cat song, so we offer this one, also curated by Huffington Post. Just to prove that all the best ideas originated in New Zealand (Neil Finn, whitebait, pavlova, Buzz Bars, jet boats, me (actually, he’s originally a Scot – Ed) , the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band), editing animal noises into something approaching a melody was done to good effect in the 1960s by the Ashley Clinton Sheep’s Choir. The latter’s classic version of Po Kare Kare Ana is still floating around on a 2012 Kiwiana compilation.

This is attributed to the Jingle Cats – of necessity an instrumental.

Wishing you all the best for Christmas and 2016. Friday on My Mind returns on January 8.