Notes From a Basement

By Doug Hubley: Sounds and reflections of a musical life

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Interlude: Looking for That Christmas Feeling

 

In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or '30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

In a digitally colorized image suitable to the holiday season, here is Fore Street in Portland, Maine, early in 1982. The camera was a Kodak Brownie from the 1920s or ’30s that I kept in the Squareback. I was on my way to work in the clip library at the Guy Gannett newspapers on a Saturday morning. Hubley Archives.

Why read when you can listen to famous Christmas Greeting Tapes? Go directly to music!


Some people believe that secular humanist liberals like me, in cahoots with the whole holiday-industrial complex, are waging a “war against Christmas.” I don’t think so — we’re too busy trying to write socialism into the Constitution. Anyway, even if we were at war with Christmas, isn’t God man enough to protect his holidays?

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. Me exaggerating my greed, but not by much. Circa 1979. Hubley Family photo.

We all look for that Christmas feeling in our own ways. This is me exaggerating my greed, but not by much, around 1979. Hubley Family photo.

Truth be told, we secular Christmas lovers have our own issues. Barren of religious faith, what exactly do we have to hang our affection for the holiday on? Our alleged joy at Christmastime, rather than swelling from within on a geothermal upsurge of faith, is glommed together from a mishmash of sentiments that are both noble (human fellowship, romantic connections, family bonds, peace on and goodwill toward, etc.) and not so much — greed and excessive self-indulgence, for instance.

And what gums this rickety sentiment together for us Christmas-loving non-believers is nostalgia, which is certainly a potent force for the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd too.

The Hubley Christmases from the 1960s through the ’80s embraced the power of human connection, but sure didn’t stint on the materialism. They were quite lavish, relative to our means. I admit that I was pretty spoiled. I remember waking up early one morning, still dopey from the partial dose of Seconal that my parents had administered to settle me down and amuse my sisters, and seeing the Beatles’ single “I Feel Fine” / “She’s a Woman” sticking out of the top of a Christmas stocking that was jammed full — a stocking made from one leg of a pair of tights, if that tells you anything about greed. O glory and excitement, not mention complicity with the holiday-industrial complex.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

The Homburg years fortunately were brief. DH with the family tree, 1972. Hubley Family photo.

Here’s some more nostalgia for you. In the mid-1960s, the radio station of choice for the Hubley siblings was Boston’s WBZ-AM. Deejays like “Juicy Brucie” Bradley, Dave Maynard and Jefferson Kaye were knowledgeable and witty in presenting the pop music of the day. I remember lying awake late at night listening to Kaye’s folk music show, which he ended with Tom Rush’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going.” Enchanting to a young teenager.

Bradley in particular introduced me to much of the music that was most formative at the start of my teens. One Friday in early 1965, the height of Beatlemania, he played a strange and wondrous thing: the Christmas greeting that the Fab Four recorded in 1963 for members of their official fan club. (I happened to have a tape recorder at the ready and captured the broadcast for posterity; hear an excerpt below.)

Turns out that for most of their time together, the Beatles made annual greetings for fan club members; I found them collected on a bootleg LP in 1973 or ’74. They ended up over-produced and impersonal, but the early ones were fresh, funny and loose. Thus inspired, and always ready to honor a good idea by appropriating it, in 1974 I began to make similar greetings for my closest friends.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

The Hubley Christmas tree in 1972, but it could have been any year. Hubley Family photo.

I started out fresh, funny and loose, and simple, with a little music and a personal message, but as I descended into the depths of my basement recording mania over the years, the greetings got more and more elaborate: attempted comedy, some of it actually funny; music, both originals and covers, pop and traditional; and always the “corny sentimental endings,” personal heartfelt outpourings that often turned uncomfortably weird.

Several ideas turned into recurring motifs: radio station WHUB in Rumford, Maine, and star deejay Lance Boyles; the Longines Symphonette Society “Home Christmas Greeting” instructional series; the Squirrel Trio, ironic knockoffs of Dave Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks; the talk show “Coffee With Doug.”

The original series ran from 1974 through 1985. By then the tapes were more complex than enjoyable to make and, I suspect, to listen to. The following year I recorded nothing but traditional holiday music on my new accordion, topped off with a very brief spoken greeting.

With Gretchen Schaefer increasingly participating on vocals and guitar, I made a few more of those, learning a bunch of obscure holiday songs from around Europe — and then dropped the whole recorded greeting idea until 1995, when I made one final Christmas Greeting Tape, in the old variety show format, on my new TASCAM four-track recorder. Those extra tracks sure made it easier.

That was a pretty good entry, and ended the Christmas greeting tape journey on a high note. It was simply time for something different — and in that spirit, I’ll offer no corny sentimental ending about the demise of the Christmas tapes here. Instead, I’ll just wish you a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

Or should I say “Happy Holidays”?


DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer's jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

DH at Richland Street, circa 1981. That officer’s jacket, about a size too small, was my winter outerwear for years. Photograph by Harriette Hubley.

Now for some music — and a few choice excerpts from the legendary, or seldom heard of, Doug Hubley Christmas Greeting Tapes.

  • Gift From WBZ’s Bruce Bradley — Recorded on the Hosho reel-to-reel, with its glowing green eye, in early 1965 in the Hubleys’ kitchen. Presented here as a fragment so as not to infringe on anyone’s copyright, this holiday greeting was recorded by the Beatles for their fan club in 1963 and intercepted by the intrepid Boston deejay Bruce “Juicy Brucie” Bradley of WBZ-AM. Opening the track are the Bachelors singing “No Arms Can Ever Hold You” (Crafter-Nebb).
  • Hedonistic Christmas — Starting in 1979 with a fairly terrible song called “I’m a College Student,” which I wrote and you will never hear if you haven’t already, I often drafted my bands to perform a song on the Christmas tapes, usually without telling them what the song was: To maintain the happy Christmas surprise, I would just teach them an arrangement and dub on the vocals later. For instance, the Karl Rossmann Band did a terrific ska-style “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” in 1980. But here’s an original number, as the Fashion Jungle in 1982 — bassist Steve Chapman, drummer Ken Reynolds and I — does a song addressing one dimension of my feelings about the holiday.
  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1981) — In December 1981 I was stressed by finals and the demise of my current band, the original Fashion Jungle, but also all electrified by my new affair with Gretchen Schaefer. That peculiar tension informed this song exploring the longing for some kind of deeper meaning to Christmas that didn’t involve, well, Christ. Like “Shortwave Radio,” also written that year, it involves fairly personal imagery (I drank a lot of Freixenet that year), but I hope it somehow reaches outside my head to speak to people. The recording is all me: vocal, Farfisa rock organ, drums, two Gretsch guitars. It was the best thing about that year’s Christmas tape.
Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Christmas party in the Jordan Marsh stockroom, circa 1978. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

  • Squirrel Trio in Hawaii — This sample from the 1975 Christmas tape features the Squirrel Trio, my blatant but ironic ripoff of Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks. I think it was Tom Hansen who revealed Bagdasarian’s essential trick to me by playing a Chipmunks LP at 16 rpm: If you record your talking rodents at a slow speed, taking care that they enunciate clearly, and play them back at normal speed, voila: Chipmunks, or Squirrels, if you prefer. I put them to work on several greetings, entangling myself in multiple tracks bounced between two tape recorders, and culminating with a monumental recording of “Holiday Inn” in 1976. This tropical-themed number, meanwhile, is four tracks total.
  • Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht — The 1982 tape benefited from careful planning and an extremely limited amount of time in which to produce it. German was my favorite subject at USM, and I took advantage of my somewhat expanded ability to record this. It occurred as part of an extended parody of public radio’s “Morning Pro Musica.”
  • Coffee With Doug’s Christmas Around the World — The talk show “Coffee With Doug” appeared in the early 1980s and proved to be a useful device that turned up both in the Christmas tapes and as a TV show concept that Gretchen, several other friends and I seriously considered bringing to the South Portland public access cable station in the mid-’80s. This sequence comes from the 1984 Christmas tape, one of the better entries in the series. Along with the tribute to a detestable Spanish pop singer, this excerpt exemplifies my affection for a bargain-bin sound-effects record that I used on just about every Christmas tape; Gretchen gave me a CD equivalent in the 1990s.
Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

Oh, my love: The doomed first Squareback, winter 1977. Instamatic photo/Hubley Archives.

  • Looking for That Christmas Feeling (1984) — Chet Baker much? Once again faced with the dissolution of a Fashion Jungle seemingly poised on the brink of success, I returned to this song for a holiday tape that was one of the stronger ones. The introduction, new that year, was provoked by a spell of warm December weather that had me worried about global warming even then. I didn’t perform this song live until the Boarders learned it, in 1995.
  • Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree — Here’s a brand-new recording of a Christmas song I wrote in 1978.  The angelic choir idea, easily executed on the Tascam 2488 (no multiple tape recorders required), came from the Mirrors’ short-lived version of the song in 1980.

“Hedonistic Christmas,” “Looking for That Christmas Feeling” and “Don’t Want No Star on My Christmas Tree” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.

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