Christmas is quite possibly the most musically controversial holiday of the year. Not everyone digs the varying styles of seasonal music, though it’s a genre unto itself. You have the ancient carols, full of religious imagery, usually sung by hoary old choirs. The early 20th century’s awash with hokey Tin Pan Alley Christmas standards, sung by crooners such as Bing Crosby. Many jazz musicians have also interpreted them. Country music had its own twangy strain. And rock ’n’ roll, upon its 1950s birth, almost immediately had its own bopping Yuletide ditties. Think of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” or Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.”
From punk rock’s mid-’70s birth, it wasn’t immune to joining the seasonal festivities, even if it was just to trash them. A healthy cynicism for the festivities’ rampant commercialization goes back to the ’60s protopunk era. The Pacific Northwest’s powerhouse garage combos all contributed to a vinyl Yuletide sampler from Etiquette Records, Merry Christmas. The Wailers gave the collection its heart by savagely slashing at the season’s green heart with a Bob Dylan-influenced sneer, “Christmas Spirit??” Bassist Buck Ormsby casts about a jaundiced eye, seeing department store Santa Clauses that are a “dime store commercialized manufactured product directly descended from a saint.” Finally, he stops the first person he sees on the street to ask whose birthday it supposedly was. “I’m not sure,” came the reply. “But I think it’s one of our presidents, ain’t it?”
Whether future punk carollers realized it or not, the Wailers set the tone for Christmas punk future with their three-minute protest track. Some bands took the classics and kicked them about, the way Sid Vicious trashed Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Others composed their own nasty Yuletide rockers. With that, Alternative Press brings you our pick of punk’s 10 greatest Christmas songs.
The Yobs – “Rub-A-Dum-Dum”
In 1977, the great underrated British punk-pop outfit the Boys issued a punk-up of Berry’s Yuletide gasser “Run Rudolph Run.” They inverted the “B” and “Y” in their name, transforming it to the U.K. slang for “a rude, noisy and aggressive young person.” It began a Christmas tradition, culminating in 1980s beautiful, horrible The Yobs Christmas Album. Amid such hilariously distasteful holiday hits as a “Silent Night” sampling Adolf Hitler (!) was this midtempo stomp through “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s every bit the equal of such Boys masterpieces as “Brickfield Nights” and “Terminal Love.”
Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
The definitive American punk band delivered a definitive punk seasonal standard. Initially the B-side to 1987’s “I Wanna Live’‘ single, the Ramones re-recorded it for 1989’s Brain Drain LP. Over a midtempo version of their trademark chainsaw pop, Joey Ramone weaves a memorable lyric about a couple fighting on Christmas Eve. Borrowing some imagery from “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas, the middle-eight turns poignant: “Christmas ain’t the time for breaking each other’s heart.” Its vintage girl group chord structure wouldn’t have been out of place on 1980’s Phil Spector-produced End Of The Century.
Stiff Little Fingers – “White Christmas”
The Irish heroes cut the Irving Berlin-penned classic for the live “Silly Encores” B-side to 1980’s “At The Edge” 45. Guitarist Henry Cluney assumed Jake Burns’ vocal mic as the band struck up a sloppy mock-country jangle of Bing Crosby’s perennial holiday hit. With a brusque four count, Stiff Little Fingers abruptly accelerate into a fourth-gear thrash. After what sounds like the band hurling all of their instruments center stage—still plugged in—Burns announces the tape’s run out and wishes all a good night. Never has a Christmas disc sounded more like all parties involved drank all the “special” eggnog before hitting “record.”
The Dickies – “Silent Night”
Franz X. Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s 1818 carol received a blistering rethink from San Fernando Valley’s snot-pop comedians the Dickies 160 years later. Stan Lee’s guitar borders on the Stoogely, while Leonard Graves Phillips bleats “’round yon virgin mother and child” like the meth-addled offspring of Sparks’ Russell Mael. The track rocks like a seahorse on acid and always sounds good while burning the synthetic Yule log. For the single sleeve, Phillips’ actual mother and father were photographed in their living room: Pop drinks beer and watches The Dating Game,’ while Mom’s tied up by the tree in a red ribbon.
Rise Against – “Making Christmas”
Walt Disney Records released Nightmare Revisited—reinterpretations from modern rock bands of the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas—in 2008. Chicago’s melodic hardcore powerhouse Rise Against contributed this clanky, minor-key dirge out of Danny Elfman’s morbidly whimsical score. The mechanical feel gets ferociously amped up, and Tim McIlrath sounds particularly delighted to sing lines like, “It’s ours this time/And won’t the children be surprised?” He delivers the cartoonishly macabre lyric with all the sinisterly theatrical flair he can muster. It would have been great if the band could’ve been on the original soundtrack.
Fear – “Fuck Christmas”
Beginning with plinked guitar resembling sleigh bells, Los Angeles’ aggrocore kings fashion a blues about the homeless at Christmastime. “All the children on the street/Hope they get something good to eat,” singer Lee Ving wails, adding, “But for me, it’s not so great.” Kicking into a brief thrash, Ving rants the title 10 times, ending proceedings after 45 seconds. The 1982 Slash Records single featured an uncensored A-side, the flip containing an edited “radio-friendly” version, appropriately retitled “(Beep) Christmas.” Hilariously, this may be the least offensive song in Fear’s repertoire. No punk-rock holiday mixtape is complete without it.
The Damned – “There Ain’t No Sanity Clause”
Britpunk’s most chaotic wiseguys tried their hand at their country’s enormous Christmas singles market in 1980, failing spectacularly. Remixed in ’83, it finally charted as high as No. 97. How can you lose, lifting a title from brilliant ’30s film comics the Marx Brothers? In 1935’s A Night At The Opera, Groucho Marx tries explaining a business contract to brother Chico. When Groucho reaches the document’s “sanity clause,” Chico scoffs, “You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Santy Claus!” The Damned’s eternal core—Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible—set this to a galloping riff, aided by rock journalist Giovanni Dadomo.
Descendents – “Christmas Vacation”
Descendents first uncorked this on 1985’s I Don’t Want To Grow Up. Singer Milo Aukerman set his heartbroken lyrics to one of drummer Bill Stevenson’s most aching melodies. Over bullet-pop slightly more delicate than your typical Descendents confection, Milo returns from college to his high school girlfriend. She promptly breaks up with him, going on an epic bender. “I watched in desperation as you stumbled before my eyes,” he recounts. “She needs beer, she doesn’t need me I finally realized.” The chorus laments, “Christmas vacation, you took a vacation from me.” Milo clearly will have a blue Christmas without her.
The Humpers – “Run, Run Rudolph”
In 1995, Sympathy For The Record Industry collected several of their artists wrecking seasonal nuggets into Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus. Long Beach trad punks the Humpers always had more than a little Johnny Thunders to them. So they naturally reached out to the ex-New York Doll’s inspiration Berry for their contribution, his “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” sequel. The band crafted a sloppy version of Thunders’ bazooka take on Berry’s I-IV-V rock ’n’ roll. Scott “Deluxe” Drake bellowed about little girls wanting dolls and boys wanting “rock ’n’ roll electric guitars.” The Humpers might’ve outdone Berry at his own game.
Celibate Rifles – “Merry Xmas Blues”
One of the things that set Australia’s Celibate Rifles apart was singer/lyricist Damien Lovelock being almost a decade older than his bandmates. Full-grown while the rest were finishing high school at their formation, he suffused their angry outburst rock with an adult viewpoint. Hence, he hardly sounds sanguine on their 1983 holiday single: “Christmastime’s when all the family relax and have a beer,” he bellows atop their typical Nagasaki guitars and Hiroshima drums. “And make the final payments on the gifts you bought last year!” The chorus sarcastically sneers the traditional carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”