Sunday, December 14, 2014
A Christmas Present....And Past - Paul Revere and the Raiders
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Columbia CS 9555
I was sad to read about Paul Revere's passing back in October. He is depicted on the back cover of this record looking back at the camera while the rest of the band faces away. I suspect that was a reference to the back cover of "Sgt. Pepper" where another guy named Paul faces away from the camera while the rest of his band faces forward. I was too young to catch the Raiders in their heyday when they were on TV all the time clowning around in their Revolutionary War outfits. I started to like them when I heard "Indian Reservation" on the radio in 1971 when it was a big hit. Eventually I heard their classic recordings from the mid-1960s and became a big fan. They weren't fashionable or cool at the time but I didn't care. I thought they were great and since nobody wanted their records they were cheap and easy to find. Well not this one. This one took a little digging and patience to get. I certainly understand why. It is easily the weirdest of their Columbia albums, I'm still not sure what they were trying to do. It was offered as a Christmas album, they called it a present, but I would definitely not recommend that you put this one on to trim the tree or have a Christmas party. It is a downer as we used to say. "Jingle Bells" is the only traditional Christmas carol on the record and it is played for laughs. It features guest vocalists Elaine Gibford and Paul Edward Connors who I have never heard of although Gibford was apparently in a movie in 1966. They sing the song in a cartoonish old fashioned style and just repeat the chorus over and over against an increasingly rocked up musical backing. The song breaks down at the end as the singers increase the tempo and go out of sync. It is an interesting deconstruction of the song that reminds me of the Mothers of Invention. The rest of the album consists of original songs by lead singer Mark Lindsay and the record's producer Terry Melcher. The album opens with an introduction that establishes the irreverent tone of the album. An announcer introduces a brass band described as a Salvation Army street band. The band is slow to start, but eventually kick in with "Joy to the World" and continue to play even after the announcer tries to get them to stop so the record can continue. The band reappears throughout the album playing brief snippets of Christmas classics in between the actual songs. The first actual song is "Wear a Smile at Christmas" which is a music hall type of song that complains about people unhappily rushing about on their holiday errands. At one point someone impersonates Lyndon Johnson urging his "fellow Americans" to smile at Christmas. "Brotherly Love" is set to the tune of the English folk song "Greensleeves." The song attacks hypocrisy and the lack of genuine feeling in people's pretense of goodwill to others at Christmas. "Rain, Sleet, Snow" is a tribute to the postal service's efforts at Christmas delivered with a quasi-psychedelic treatment featuring strings and a heavy riff. It is my favorite song on the album. Side one concludes with "Peace" which is an instrumental played by strings. They play a simple motif that is repeated over and over interspersed with occasional thunderclaps. At least I think they are thunderclaps, maybe they are supposed to be explosions that would make more sense. Side two opens with "Valley Forge" which begins with an announcer setting the scene as Christmas 1775 and noting that no resemblance is intended to any future conflicts presumably referring to Vietnam. The song reflects the perspective of one of George Washington's disgruntled soldiers who doesn't understand what he is fighting for which sure sounds more like Vietnam than the Revolutionary War to me. The song moves from a musical comedy type tune to a more rock based one with sleigh bells running through the song for an ironic effect. "Dear Mr. Claus" is a music hall style song about a guy who wants a "real live doll" for Christmas. He doesn't want her just for companionship, he needs her to wash the dishes as well. "Macy's Window" is a description of typical Christmas vignettes that I believe are meant to express the lack of a true Christmas spirit. This song is followed by "Christmas Spirit" which is another musical hall type tune that celebrates the Christmas spirit but the song is given an exaggerated, almost sloppy performance that suggest some sarcastic distance from the subject not unlike their version of "Jingle Bells." The album concludes with "A Heavy Christmas Message" which is "who took the Christ out of Christmas." It takes less than a minute to deliver the message but the song lasts about 4 minutes and 15 seconds. There is a minute of near silence as the music is mixed so low as to be almost inaudible unless you crank up the volume. Eventually it is faded up enough to hear some jug band style jamming with a prominent kazoo and then it is faded down for another minute of barely audible music. It is kind of amusing but I have to admit I don't always wait for it to finish before I turn it off. And there you have it, a not so merry Christmas with Paul Revere and the Raiders. Looking at my description it sounds pretty awful, but actually I really like the record. Its consistency of theme and technique as well as the device of linking the songs with the brass band elevate the whole above the parts. It is what albums are all about. The dynamics of this band are so fascinating. Like the Monkees they combined comedy, crass commercialism and artistic ambition to create a train wreck of an album that still somehow works. I would compare it to the Monkees' project "Head," a work designed to confound a teenybopper fan base while using the commercial clout of that fan base to create a personal statement. People who dismiss Paul Revere and the Raiders as a lightweight group ought to give it a spin. I say these guys were one of the best American bands of their era. Recommended to fans of "The Beatles Christmas Album."