Saturday, December 27, 2008

MUSIC: How An Obscure 80s Punk Band Created A Christmas Classic - Redux

I found the following story from NPR and am adding it to this piece I've already posted. - OlderMusicGeek

I found
this while surfing the net. I edited it down. You can read the whole piece here. - OlderMusicGeek

How an obscure 80s punk band created a Christmas classic
Thursday December 22, 2005

Struggling band The Waitresses dragged themselves off the road and into a Manhattan studio to record - of all things - a Christmas song on a hot August day in 1981. Little did they know they were about to create a classic - a song that would well outlive the band, the 80s and, sadly, the frontwoman who sang it.

"I go back and I try to think of what the original inspiration was. I think it was just very much that for years I hated Christmas," says Chris Butler, founder of the Waitresses and writer of the bittersweet, cool but sentimental Christmas Wrapping.

The song is as much about a harried lifestyle and trying to make connections as it is about Christmas. "Everybody I knew in New York was running around like a bunch of fiends," he says of Christmases back around the time he moved from his native Ohio to New York City and formed the Waitresses. "It wasn't about joy. It was something to cope with."

As talk-sung by late lead singer Patty Donahue, Butler's song depicts a hard-working single girl who resolves to sit Christmas out one year. This, as she laments her repeated and unsuccessful attempts to reconnect with a guy she met by chance the previous winter. But just as in A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, a twist of fate and a little magical intervention restore our heroine's belief in the Christmas spirit, after all.

Their record label had asked each of its punk bands to write a Christmas song for a holiday album. "A Christmas album? On a hipster label? Come on. Never happened," says Butler, giving the raspberry. "They were extreme individuals," he says of the label's roster.

Then again, the band itself was once a myth.

While Butler was a musician playing, he wrote songs for a make-believe side group. "I came up with the name `the Waitresses' because it just sounded kind of New Wavey," he says. "It was all a big joke."

But when industry people in New York expressed serious interest in I Know What Boys Like, Butler quickly cobbled together a formal Waitresses lineup. Many of the musicians Butler recruited were Midwesterners who, like himself, gravitated to New York. Meanwhile, Donahue was still in Ohio.

A free spirit who was in and out of college when she wasn't working waitress jobs, she decided to come along for the ride. "I gave her my last 50 bucks, put her on the Greyhound bus, she kissed her boyfriend goodbye, and she decided to come to New York. What the hell?"

The Waitresses officially debuted as a real, fully organized band at Little Club 57 at 57 St. Mark's Place on Jan 3, 1981. Months of playing everywhere - and I Know What Boys Like still wasn't making much of a dent.

In they came from the road in August 1981, exhausted, discouraged and not exactly in the Christmas spirit. Butler wrote Christmas Wrapping in about a week, put together from what he calls his "riff pile" - cassettes with bits and pieces of songs he wrote, for a rainy day. Some of the lyrics were written in the cab, en route to the studio. He credits his fellow musicians with adding brilliant flourishes to his basic musical arrangement. And, of course, he credits Donahue - the least experienced band member with the highest visibility.

"This is what she brought to the party: She was very smart. She was very funny. She was a very good actress. Great sense of humor, great timing. This was not the world's greatest vocalist, but she could get inside these lines and act them out, with a cigarette, and be my kind of favourite 1930s tough broad in all those Depression-era movies. She could do that kind of tough, tough, been-there, done-that, you-can't-fool-me kind of woman."

Two days of recording, and Christmas Wrapping was in the can. Back out on the road they went, forgetting all about it - until it started getting radio play come Christmas season. It was a weird way to have a hit.

"We had to play the song up until, like, June. And we had to capitalize on it - `Hi, this is our new album. We're the people who did that song back at Christmas,'" he says. "I am an official one-hit wonder. Except I have two half-hits: The Christmas song, and I Know What Boys Like, which never quite broke through but never quite went away."

Though they were seemingly gaining momentum, what happens next isn't quite the magical happy ending of Christmas tales. "We ran out of gas," he says about working on their next album. "We had a huge deadline. Huge pressure. And she (Donahue) said, `The hell with it'."

Then in the mid-90s, this Christmas tale comes to an even less happy ending.

"I found out she was sick, through a friend. I immediately called her. We kind of kissed and made up. I asked if there was anything I could do. We had a couple of phone conversations." Donahue died of lung cancer on Dec. 9, 1996, at age 40.

And as for Christmas? He has a bit of a different perspective on it, now. Especially when he's rushing around doing errands and suddenly hears his song on the radio, after all these years.

"Who'd have thunk it? Yeah. Holy cow," he says of its longevity. "Miracles do happen. It's MY Christmas miracle. And it slaps me around and says, `Lighten up. It's Christmas'."

A link to the original article

Merry Christmas or whatever holiday you're celebrating!
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