There may be no group more associated with the sounds of summer than The Beach Boys, favorite sons of Hawthorne, California. Yet the boys of summer could also accurately be described as the boys of winter, based on their timeless, perennial music celebrating Christmas. While the entire official Beach Boys Christmas catalogue is based around just one released album and another shelved one, the group's contribution to seasonal music can't be underestimated. On the eve of the group's 50th anniversary, Back Tracks explores the holiday music of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston: The Beach Boys. Hit the jump to hitch up your Little Saint Nick and join us!
The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (Capitol, 1964 - reissued Capitol, 1988 & 1991)
There are only a handful of bona fide classic rock & roll Christmas albums. For some, the list begins and ends with A Christmas Present to You from Phil Spector. But like that Phil Spector-produced collection, The Beach Boys' Christmas Album transcends labels to simply be one of the best Christmas albums ever committed to vinyl. The group made its first entry into the Christmas market with the single "Little Saint Nick" during the 1963 holiday season, and the following year released Christmas Album, leading off with that pivotal track in a new mix. The first side consisted of five Brian Wilson originals, either written solo or with Mike Love providing lyrics, plus a rollicking cover of "Frosty the Snowman," while Side Two offered a reverent (and angellicaly-sung, of course) "We Three Kings" along with "Blue Christmas," "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Auld Lang Syne." But it's the originals that stand out. Almost as irresistible as the now-standard and much-covered "Little Saint Nick" is "The Man with All the Toys." Although "Toys" didn't repeat the single success of "Little Saint Nick," it still receives frequent holiday airplay today. "Santa's Beard" is a delightful bit of eccentric Brian Wilson whimsy, with all backing instrumentation provided by the group itself and not the Wrecking Crew pros. "Merry Christmas, Baby" is a spirited, hand-clapping track, and the equally melodic "Christmas Day" boasted the first Al Jardine lead on a Beach Boys record.
Brian himself provided the arrangements for his five originals, while he brought in Dick Reynolds to orchestrate (for a 41-piece orchestra!) and even vocally arrange the remaining tracks. Reynolds had performed in those capacities for The Four Freshmen, the group that most inspired Brian in his youth. So it was a thrill for the younger man to enlist Reynolds, who supplied the Beach Boys with lush backing worthy of his best work with the Freshmen.
The Beach Boys' Christmas Album was first released on CD in 1988 with the mono single mix of "Little Saint Nick" replacing the LP's leadoff track. It was then expanded in 1991 in an edition that reinstated the correct "Little Saint Nick" and added a number of bonus tracks. That original mono single of "Little Saint Nick" with its additional instrumentation (glockenspiel, celeste and, yes, sleigh bells) reappeared as a bonus track, along with an odd version of the song sung to the backing track of "Drive-In," the genesis of which is still debated. "The Lord's Prayer," the original B-side to "Little Saint Nick," appeared as well as an alternate mix of "Auld Lang Syne" with Dennis' spoken word portion removed. This edition was itself expanded upon in 1998 with the release of Ultimate Christmas; see below. There have also been budget repackages of this title with tracks dropped at random; avoid these at all costs!
It should be noted that a three-disc set of session material from Christmas Album has circulated, with backing tracks and alternate takes, plus an outtake of "Jingle Bells" with full orchestra. Alas, no vocals were recorded for the song.
Merry Christmas from The Beach Boys (Warner/Reprise, 1977 - unreleased)
Despite some incredible periods of fertile creativity, it's fair to say that The Beach Boys spent much of the 1970s in a state of upheaval, frequently related to the increasing troubles of the group's onetime leader, Brian Wilson. Between 1962 and 1974, The Beach Boys had released at least one new studio album each year. But after 1973's Holland (recorded in the country of the title) and until 1976's 15 Big Ones, largely comprised of oldies covers, no new album was released by The Beach Boys. One crumb thrown to anxious fans was a largely-unheralded 1974 single, "Child of Winter (Christmas Song)" written by Brian with poet and collaborator Steve Kalinich. It was kept all in the family, with Mike Love supplying lead vocals, Carl on guitar, Dennis on drums, Brian's daughters (and future Wilson Phillips members) Carnie and Wendy shaking the sleigh bells, and Brian handling everything else on the track. The fun, uptempo song quotes "Here Comes Santa Claus" at length, but went unnoticed.
In the fall of 1977, the group relocated to Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa with the dual goals of meditation and recording an album to satisfy a contract with Warner/Reprise. The group intended it to be a Christmas album entitled Merry Christmas from The Beach Boys. Unfortunately, the Warner brass rejected the LP, and the group set out to retool some of the songs with non-holiday lyrics set to the same backing tracks; the resulting album was 1978's M.I.U.
Merry Christmas from the Beach Boys reportedly would have contained eleven tracks out of at least fifteen recorded. Not all of which selected were Christmas-related, though, such as Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" and an outtake from 15 Big Ones, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." A seasonal medley of four Christmas classics was considered (including "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"), and there were new holiday songs, of course, reflecting the group's change in style over the years. "Winter Symphony" was Brian's major contribution, and it couldn't be more different than his work on the 1964 Christmas Album. "Winter Symphony" was repurposed from a track Brian had recorded a year or two earlier, and has a somewhat dark melody with baroque horn accents. The '50s-flavored "(I Saw Santa) Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was adapted from another backing track circa 1975/1976, Brian's "Hey There, Momma." The Boys reached back even further for "Santa's Got an Airplane," recording new lyrics to 1969's "Loop de Loop." Al and Mike's "Melekalikimaka," also known as "Kona Christmas," bears no relation to the Bing Crosby standard of the same name, but is a fun surfing song harking back to the group's golden era. It would be transformed into "Kona Coast" for M.I.U. Al, Mike and Ron Altbach contributed "Bells of Christmas," which would turn up on M.I.U. as "Belles of Paris." Dennis, though not a participant in the M.I.U. sessions, nonetheless wished to contribute. He offered "Morning Christmas," a somber mood piece with a hymn-like atmosphere reminiscent of his solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue. Quite a contrast to Dennis' song is the infectious Al Jardine-produced "Christmas Time is Here Again," recorded to the backing track of the group's cover of "Peggy Sue" and credited to Buddy Holly, Norman Petty, Jerry Allison and Jardine. Merry Christmas from the Beach Boys languished in the Brother Records vaults as another great lost project by the band until the release of 1992's Ultimate Christmas, on which a number of its tracks were excavated and remixed.
In additional, a still-unreleased alternate version of "Santa's Got an Airplane" utilizes the backing track to "H.E.L.P. is on the Way" instead of "Loop de Loop" (and this version never uses the title as a lyric) and an alternate mix of "Bells of Christmas" has circulated, too. A nice Mike Love-sung track from these sessions, "Christmas Day," is not the same song as recorded by the group in 1964, and the brass-driven "Go and Get That Girl" alludes to the holiday even if it isn't a Christmas song, per se. It was later recorded by Love with his side band, Celebration, in 1979.
Ultimate Christmas (Capitol, 2002)
Here's one compilation that lives up to its title. Ultimate Christmas is the standard against which all other expanded editions of The Beach Boys' Christmas Album can be measured. The original 12 tracks are augmented by 14 more: the single version of "Little Saint Nick," remixed into stereo, as well as the "Drive-In" version; the alternate "Auld Lang Syne;" "Child of Winter;" seven tracks from the M.I.U. era; a 1964 interview with Brian Wilson about the new holiday LP; and two 1977 radio spots for local toy drives. The first radio spot offers the Boys singing to the tune of "Little Saint Nick" and shows just how different the group sounded in 1977, while the second features Dennis asking listeners to donate a toy. Producers Cheryl Pawelski, Andrew Sandoval and Brad Elliott packed the booklet with track-by-track liner notes and copious photos. The only track missing is "The Lord's Prayer," the original B-side to "Little Saint Nick." It's unfortunate that Ultimate Christmas has been superseded by inferior repackages; this is the title to beat!
Christmas with the Beach Boys (Capitol, 2004)
Capitol's 2004 release restored The Beach Boys' Christmas Album's tree-trimming photograph on its cover, but is otherwise almost identical to Ultimate Christmas. It replicates 25 of that collection's 26 tracks, inexplicably dropping "Christmas Time is Here Again" from the lineup. If you already own the previous release, there's no incentive to pick this one up.
Brian Wilson, What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista, 2005)
While not a Beach Boys album, any fan could hardly go wrong with Brian Wilson's inspired 2005 solo set. Jimmy Webb penned lyrics to Wilson's music for "Christmasey" while Bernie Taupin contributed words to the album's title track, and both songs showed that the reinvigorated artist/producer had lost none of his melodic invention. (The completed SMiLE more than proved that to fans, too!) These impeccably-produced tunes are firmly in Wilson's mid-1960s production style which he both defined and continues to embrace today. There are energetic remakes of "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man with All the Toys," propelled by the always-amazing musicianship of Wilson's band, including Jeffrey Foskett, Darian Sahanaja, Scott Bennett, Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, Paul Mertens, Bob Lizik, Jim Hines, Nelson Bragg and Taylor Mills. Wilson also revisits "Auld Lang Syne" and brings new touches to a number of classics including "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and a funky "Deck the Halls." The material here is largely stronger than the proposed 1977 album, and the entire set has a timeless quality. Three "bonus tracks" supplement the core 12, rounding up website-only songs and one-off compilation appearances from Brian. These three tracks are "On Christmas Day," a Wall of Sound-influenced Wilson original that debuted on his website in 2000 and released in 2001 on 20 Christmas Stars III (Kid's Records, CMND-0149), plus "Joy to the World" (originally released on 1997's Christmas Spirit: A Musical Celebration compilation) and "Silent Night."
Christmas Harmonies (Capitol, 2009)
The 2009 Christmas Harmonies was an even bigger downgrade from Ultimate Christmas, and even from Christmas with the Beach Boys. This 15-track compilation included each song from the original LP (with "Little Saint Nick" in its mono single incarnation and "Auld Lang Syne" in its alternate mix) plus two of the 1977 songs and "Child of Winter." Perhaps as a carrot for collectors, the Wilson/Love original compositions were included in mono versions making their debut on CD. Unless you're a mono enthusiast, however, this collection is hardly essential, and offers nothing in the way of liner notes or information compared to the comprehensive Ultimate Christmas. The 1964 and 1977 tracks simply don't mesh well together without the benefit of the context provided in Ultimate Christmas.
While these albums represent the Beach Boys' core Christmas catalogue, there are many other rarities to seek out. Let's look at the most interesting of them, shall we? In his 1986 sessions with old friend Gary Usher, Brian Wilson taped a new song called "Christmas Time;" this bright, synth-laden track has yet to see official release. Carnie and Wendy Wilson's 1999 Hey Santa! included a 1977 home recording of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" with daddy Brian contributing his unmistakable vocals. (Wilson Phillips' 2010 Christmas release, Christmas in Harmony, finds the women harmonizing on "Our Prayer," from Wilson's masterpiece SMiLE, which Carnie Wilson says is the most challenging arrangement the group has ever tackled.) In 2003, Styx joined Brian Wilson for a special rendition of "White Christmas" which streamed on Wilson's website. In 2008, Al Jardine had a holiday treat for fans with his own composition, "Big Sur Christmas," while Brian had another surprise with his website-only take on "The Christmas Song." In 2009, Mike Love had a big presence on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's compilation Hope for the Holidays. Mike and son Christian joined the chorus for "Closing of the Year," and offered a holiday spin on his latter-day Beach Boys hit "Kokomo" in the form of "Santa's Goin' to Kokomo." This true novelty seems to just avoid the original melody enough to withhold credit from John Phillips and Terry Melcher. Love had previously released this song under his own name to iTunes. Bruce Johnston and Randell Kirsch are among those singing on the track. (It is oddly credited to "The Beach Boys" on the CD.) Mike also joins with Christian for Lawrence Davis' "Peace and Love," and the CD also features songs by then-current Beach Boys band members Kirsch and John Cowsill. Going back further, Mike contributed to a 1983 television tie-in LP, Christmas Party, with versions of "Jingle Bell Rock" (joined by Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean), "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with Mary MacGregor, and a solo "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
One thing is clear: summer or winter, The Beach Boys undoubtedly can provide the soundtrack to the season! The current touring lineup led by Love and Johnston often adds the group's holiday favorites into their set list this time of year, and I've had the pleasure of hearing Brian Wilson and his band do "Little Saint Nick," as well. But with the group's 50th anniversary imminent, wouldn't it be nice to see Merry Christmas from the Beach Boys restored to its original core track listing for the first time?