Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas Discs You Should be Spinning, Part 2

Barenaked for the Holidays -- Barenaked Ladies

Release Date -- October 5, 2004

This CD opens with a slow, almost melancholy intro before launching into Jingle Bells played as a polka. That silliness alone should tell you why I like this album so much.

But there's much more at play here. Don't be mistaken, there's plenty more silliness in here, including several synth-carols that would sound at home in the local ice-rink.

But there's also an awesome version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" with Sarah McLachlan that somehow combines BNL's quirky vocal style with McLachlan's ethereal voice.

There's also the notable inclusion of several Hanukkah songs, which you don't find on a lot of Christmas albums (and is why I chose this for today's posting -- there you go Mr. Acks (not that you visit my blog, but still....)

Bottom line -- this is the most fun Holiday CD I own. They even manage to make that perennial Band-Aid downer "Do They Know it's Christmas?" sound upbeat (seriously, who starts a song with the lyric "It's Christmastime, there's no need to be afraid"?!?).

Check it out here --

Here's a video of "Elf's Lament" (w/o Michael Buble, who pitches in on the CD version):
And here's the Amazon link with previews ("Christmas Pics" will make you smile.....)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lost Toys of the 70s, Part 1

Hugo, Man of 1000 Faces
Kenner Toys, 1975

Okay, I'll say this -- my parents really outdid themselves every Christmas. I don't think my brother, sister, and I were particularly spoiled, but our Christmas mornings were filled with the most awesome collection of toys.

Not only did we usually get the one or two things that we really, really wanted, they also gave us this wide assortment of things (including books, games, puzzles, model kits, you name it) that we didn't even necessarily ask for, but that they knew we would love. And most often, we loved what each other got as well.

Now those of you who have visited my basement know that I still have most of these treasures.

But then there's Hugo -- The Man of 1000 Faces. I distinctly remember my brother Jason getting Hugo one Christmas (1975 seems about right, based on the Sears wishbook catalog page above). This would also make sense, because I think 1975 was my Monster Christmas, where I got all these Mego and AHI monster action figures, so Hugo would have been a likely counterpart for my brother.
The only problem is -- neither Jason, my sister Julie, nor my parents ever remember having Hugo in the house [cue Twilight Zone music] .
I mean, look at him -- how could anyone forget having this?
But here's the thing -- my mother never got rid of anything, yet when we cleaned out their attic during their move a few years ago, I didn't come across any evidence of Hugo (none of the little disguise pieces, no box top, nothing....)
So how is it possible that I remember playing with this creepy little puppet with the glue-on disguises? I remember that he was heavier than a hollow doll would have been, and had a vaguely chemical/plastic smell -- probably from the glue.
While we're looking at him (just try to break that hypnotic stare!), isn't it weird how even though he was manufactured in 1975, he has an uncanny resemblance to Verne Troyer/Mini-Me? Also, note that he is wearing a puffy shirt (why, exactly?).
Finally, before you try to push Hugo into the recesses of your mind where nightmares dwell, take a last look at the catalog page. There's a great mid-70's Brady Bunch/Hollywood Squares-esque board showing 9 of the 1000 faces of Hugo. Take a look at the Mr. Brady spot (bottom row, center, for those not in the know)....apparently Hugo could masquerade as John Lennon (!).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Blast from TV Christmas Past, Part 2

Dragnet -- The Big Little Jesus

Original Airdate -- December 24, 1953

--"The Old Mission Church -- They've Had a Theft."
--"Collection Money?"
--"Statue of the Child Jesus."


So starts what is clearly a slow day in the Los Angeles Precinct for Detectives Joe Friday and Frank Gannon. I won't say anything further about the plot, but I will say the rat-a-tat dialogue Dragnet was known for makes this half-hour both a laugh riot and a stubbornly touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

This is done without any of the typical trappings of TV Christmas episodes -- no tree-trimming mishaps, no shopping frenzies, no Gift of the Magi or Christmas Carol knockoffs.

They seriously do not make 'em like this anymore. Just check out the framing of the scene between Friday and Father Rojas where he gets "just the facts" (see above and below):

Can you imagine any prime-time network show (say, Law & Order) shooting a scene like this today?

I would point out all the great lines and little touches, but I don't want to ruin it.

But I will say hang in there till the end and take a good look at the Baby Jesus after he turns up (spoiler I know, but was there any doubt?)...anyway, right after the Extended Holy Family curtain call (backed by heavenly choir), notice how BIG that baby is in relation to the rest of the made Dianne and I nostalgic for Baby Aaron (the Giant Baby).

This episode was remade in color for Dragnet 1967, but I think this version works better with the film-noirish look. And even better -- this version must be in the Public Domain, because you can watch it for free here:

Blast from TV Christmas Past, Part 1

Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special

Original AirDate -- December 21, 1988

The Christmas season doesn't officially begin here at the Ryder household until we gather 'round to watch our favorite Christmas tradition.

I'll admit that I didn't watch this on its first and only CBS network airing...Aaron was a baby and we were likely in full holiday frenzy.

But sometime in the mid-90's, my mother bought a bunch of VHS copies of this at the dollar store and so my siblings and I each received a copy.

Over the years, we have tried to bring others into the fold, inviting them over for the annual viewing, but so many don't "get" how awesome this special is. It's really a good barometer of how compatible we are; we can usually tell from their reaction to the opening titles:

Go on, watch it....I'll wait here....

So, if that didn't make you want to go buy the DVD ($5 at Five-Below), then really, why are you reading this?

For those that do learn to love this, since I won't be there to watch it with you (unless of course you invite me over), here's a few things to watch out for --

2:47 -- "....and we're gonna have a lot of fun...." Pee-Wee bumps into one of the "Marines" and keeps going (I wonder which take this was?)

7:55 -- "...Hey Miss Yvonne, come stand over me....."

15:11 -- "Sorry Grace, back in the box..."

24:43 -- Larry Fishburne in chaps (unusual sight)....

26.54 -- Little Richard in sequins (not so unusual sight)

28:50 -- is that Jake Gyllenhall ?

35:12 -- 80's vintage Big-Head Oprah

37:05 -- " the only thing missing is Charo!"

40:30 -- "C'mon everybody! It's the Hanukkah portion of the show!"

42:50 -- Baby Jesus gets a shout-out (the True Meaning of Christmas only gets about 30 seconds of airtime though)

46:10 -- "What more do you want, Santa?!?"

Really, those are just the highlights -- there's so much more...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Discs You Should be Spinning, Pt. 1

A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records
(retitled on CD as A Christmas Gift for you from Phil Spector)
Originally released on November 22, 1963 (a date otherwise infamous for the JFK assassination), this album was not a success.

However, its renown has grown over the years, and is now considered to be one of the best Christmas-themed albums of the rock/pop era.
I think it stands as the last milestone of American pop prior to the Beatles invasion, which would hit two months later. It's also a sad reminder of what Phil Spector accomplished before becoming a fright-wigged nutball.

The album was really one of the first to apply pop arrangements to holiday standards. It opens with a swinging version of White Christmas by Darlene Love, who often sang uncredited lead for other groups in the Philles stable (that's her singing lead on The Crystals' "He's a Rebel"). Here, she's given star billing, and deservedly so. She even manages to insert the original rarely-heard first verse as a spoken bridge midway through the song.

Next up is the better-known star, Ronnie Spector leading The Ronettes in a wall-of-sound version of "Frosty the Snowman". Ronnie's gravelly kewpie-doll voice floats above the percussion in an arrangement reminiscent of "Be My Baby".

Speaking of reminiscent, the next song "The Bells of St. Mary's" opens with a swipe of the bassline from "And Then He Kissed Me". This is one of two songs fronted by the only male singer here -- Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans --and apparently ended up being their last recordings.

The Crystals come in with "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" which opens with an odd spoken-word intro where lead singer LaLa Brooks is telling Jimmy (her boyfriend? little brother? son?) that she has been to the Milky Way and stopped off at the North Pole to talk to Santa, who shows her around and shares his plans with her (who IS she anyway?). She then chastises Jimmy to write his letter "because he's getting ready his reindeers and his sleigh". All this backed by a tinkling lullaby...and then they crank into a rocking chorus. Here's where things really get moving, with sax solos, bells, drums, xylophones, and whatever else they could cram into the studio.

This sets the tone of the next seven songs, which form the heart of the album. "Sleigh Ride" by the Ronettes tends to get the most airplay -- with its infectious "ring-aling-aling-ading-dong-ding" backups, clip-clop percussion, and horseneigh bookends. This is followed by "Marshmallow World" (Love), "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" (Ronettes, backed by castanets!), "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (sung as a girl-group lament by The Crystals, as if Rudolph is some misunderstood boy they want to date), "Winter Wonderland" (Love), and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (Crystals).

All of this leads to the only original song on the LP, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love, in full gospel-belter mode (an unknown teenage Cher is supposed to be in there somewhere singing backup). This song takes what could have essentially been a novelty album and elevates it to classic status. I first heard the song as the opening title to Gremlins in 1984, searched out the soundtrack (it ain't there) and then finally found this album (the 70s remixed version with a different cover) in a cutout bin. (I do NOT own the original LP, in case anyone is looking for Christmas present ideas)

Although covered by dozens of acts since (U2 and Mariah Carey most famously -- Hanson, not so much), no one sings like Darlene Love, who has been singing it live every year since 1986 on the Christmas episode of The Late Show with David Letterman.

It's all denoument after Love blows the roof off. Bob B. Soxx returns with "Here Comes Santa Claus" and producer Phil Spector gives the final postscript Christmas message (remember when those used to be on TV?) backed by an instrumental "Silent Night".

The CD has been out-of-print for several years (with premium prices on eBay), but it has been re-released this year (

Do yourself a favor and go buy it before it goes out of print again.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christmas Card 2008

Last year's Christmas card was an homage to the classic 1963 LP "A Christmas Gift for you from Philles Records".

We used this as the cover to a greatest hits "mix-tape" CD I made for co-workers.

Tomorrow's post will be the first in a series of Christmas records you should be listening to this year.

No definitive plan yet for the design of this year's card.

Christmas Card 2007

Starting out my blog with our groovy Christmas card from 2007, courtesy of my oldest son Aaron, an aspiring artist and musician (that's him with the guitar on the right).

The card was inspired by the Art of Shag, which you can see more of at

Hey, I figured why keep buying Christmas cards when I have a resident artist right here.