In 1990, the BBC showed an excellent series called “House Of Cards”, a fictional story about power and corruption at the heart of government. Ian Richardson starred as Francis Urquhart who coined the phrase “you might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”.
The concept was adapted for the USA with a series consisting of 73 episodes over six seasons starring Kevin Spacey. It was compulsive viewing with a whole host of well drawn characters including Claire Underwood playing President Frank Underwood’s wife.
In 2017, numerous allegations were made against Kevin Spacey, accusing him of sexual misconduct with various teenage boys or young men. Netflix quickly severed all ties with him and the last series of “House Of Cards” was rewritten without his character. I stopped watching “House Of Cards” as soon as I read about the allegations. It sounds very pious of me but it was more of a feeling than a principled stand. I’m not really sure why I haven’t seen the remaining few episodes. I’ve seen 65 episodes and enjoyed them but I haven’t felt like watching the conclusion.
Phil Spector displayed his musical genius from an early age but the price of his talent always seemed to be mental instability. In February 2003, an actress called Lana Clarkson was found dead from a gunshot wound in Phil Spector’s California mansion. In 2009, after a legal storyline worthy of the most tacky courtroom drama, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to nineteen years in prison and is not eligible for parole until 2025.
Does this mean we shouldn’t listen to Phil Spector’s work now? It would be a shame if we couldn’t listen to “Let It Be”, “All Things Must Pass” or “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”. Or indeed this Christmas album. Should I make sure I never watch the remaining epsiodes of “House Of Cards”? The BBC never show any repeats of “Top Of The Pops” which show Jimmy Saville. What is right and what is wrong?
The whole issue of how to, or indeed if to, celebrate Christmas this year is hugely complex and listening to an album of great Christmas music produced by someone who subsequently thought it was fine to play around with guns only muddies the waters even more. Rightly or wrongly, I intend to listen to this album a lot over the next three weeks, as I do every year.
The album was released on the day of John Kennedy’s assassination, November 22nd 1963 and consists of classic Christmas pop songs performed by a mixture of artists but mainly girl groups such as The Ronettes, The Crystals (and their lead singer, Darlene Love). The production is warm, gorgeous and comforting as would be expected from the only person with Phil Spector’s unique talents.
The album starts with “White Christmas” which my Mum would sing about once a week all year round. I could never work out why this was, especially since, as an Australian, she had never seen snow until she arrived in the U.K. in 1948. The song was written by Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby’s version is reckoned to be the world’s best selling single with over 50 million sales. The version here has dramatic vocals, lush orchestration and even finishes with a musical reference to “Jingle Bells”.
The Ronettes sing “Frosty The Snowman”. They consisted of Veronica Bennett, her sister Estelle and their cousin Nedra Talley. Veronica later married Phil Spector and is better known as Ronnie Spector. In 1969, they adopted a son Donte. For Christmas in 1971, Phil Spector surprised his wife with twins, Louis and Gary. Two months later she left him. She had suffered years of psychological abuse: he put barbed wire and guard dogs around their house and confiscated her shoes to prevent her from leaving. On the rare occasions that she did leave the house she had to drive with a cardboard cutout of Phil Spector in the passenger seat.
The Ronettes also perform my favourite song off this album, “Sleigh Ride” which, apart from anything has a short orchestral section which is lovely. The song was written by Leroy Anderson, someone I’ve never heard of, but whose Wikipedia entry lists hundreds of his compositions. John Williams called him “one of the great American masters of light orchestral compositions”.
The Crystals sing three songs on the album: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers”. Their lead singer was Darlene Love who also contributes four songs as a solo act. The Crystals had many hit singles (“Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Then He Kissed Me” and “He’s A Rebel”) but their version of the Goffin-King song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” was a flop. The song was based on the true account of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s babysitter who was regularly beaten by her boyfriend and claimed that he did this because he loved her. The Crystals also sing “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers” which was originally an instrumental song called “Parade Of The Tin Soldiers”, written by the German composer Leon Jessell in 1897. The instrumental version was, for many years, used by the BBC to introduce the “Toytown” section of “Children’s Hour”. The lyrics were written by Ballard MacDonald in 1922 who also wrote “On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine”.
One of the songs that Darlene Love sings is “Winter Wonderland”. This was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith. The original lyrics concerned a romance between a couple during winter. In 1947 a different version of the lyrics was published which replaced a lovestruck couple with children playing in the snow. The snowman that was to double up as a minister was replaced by a clown and the intended marriage vows were turned into lyrics about frolicking.
The final song on the album is very spooky. It’s a lush, sentimental, over produced version of “Silent Night” and it features a mad sounding Phil Spector thanking all the musicians who played on the album but also “the biggest thanks go to you”. I’m happy to receive his thanks as long as he doesn’t give me a present of twin boys or shoot me.