Classic Album Review: ZE Records Skips Holly and Jolly on A Christmas Record 1981

1981 was a bad year for New York City. By the time the big red apple dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, reports of violent and property crime in the city had peaked at 1,214,935 (a record that still stands), West 42nd Street’s warren of porno theaters and by-the-hour motels had prompted Rolling Stone to declare it “the sleaziest block in America,” and the New York Times had unknowingly heralded the decade’s oncoming AIDS crisis with the chilling headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”

Even the winter holidays weren’t immune to the malaise. December saw the city weather a 17-day strike by private trash collectors that produced a rash of garbage fires, violence, and refuse-piled streets. An op-ed in the Times from the day before the strike’s end described the situation with the terse poetry of a wartime dispatch: “Plastic bags break and begin to smell; some have caught fire, singeing adjacent buildings; fears of vermin and disease grow. Piled-up trash hides what’s left of the city’s beauty. Intimations of disorder corrode what’s left of civic spirit.”

This is all a long way of saying that you’d be forgiven for doubting that anyone in that city, at that time, would have the energy or interest in recording one of modern pop music’s most essential Christmas records. Luckily, the “anyone” in this case was the motley roster of ZE Records, the haven of mutant disco and no-wave overseen by tastemakers Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban.

By 1981, ZE had established its gonzo bona fides through acts ranging from the minimalist punk menace of Suicide to the skronky sax provocations of James Chance to the avant weirdness of Lydia Lunch to the near-tropical funk of acts like Kid Creole and the Coconuts. They were the last label in town you might expect to produce a Christmas compilation, a fact which made A Christmas Record as fascinating as it was unlikely.

Most famous now for including The Waitresses’ still-underrated “Christmas Wrapping”, the 11 songs that comprise A Christmas Record’s first two releases (the UK-only 1981 version and the wider 1982 release) broke with a treacly tradition that saw even certified rock stars produce what Times critic Robert Palmer called at the time “some of the direst, most pernicious Christmas records of all time.”

Instead, listeners were greeted with holiday bleakness, delivered by songs that came by their direness not through false cheer, but through the honest yuletide blend of humor and anger and despair. Alan Vega and Suicide lead the way here — wandering through Martin Rev’s murky, mercurial no-wave soundscapes, Vega delivers two tales of winter desperation (“Hey Lord” and “No More Christmas Blues”) with all the affect of a walking Valium — but they aren’t the only ones keyed into Christmas’ darker moods. “Christmas with Satan” finds James Chance torturing classics as he tacks up tinsel in hell while “Things Fall Apart” lets ZE secret weapon Cristina systematically dismantle the case for Christmastime nostalgia with score-settling lyrics steeped in wry melodrama.

Even the brightest songs on the record are tinged with bittersweetness. Davitt Sigerson’s should’ve-been-a-standard “It’s a Big Country” recognizes the loneliness at the heart of the holiday phone call, The Waitresses’ hit “Christmas Wrapping” ends with a potential love affair that’s still powered by canned cranberries from an all-night A&P, and August Darnell’s impossibly catchy “Christmas on Riverside Drive” lauds NYC’s holiday vibe while celebrating the scenic Manhattan road whose architectural glory days called back to the fading past rather than towards any future.

If A Christmas Record’s only legacy came from its status as a forlorn holiday artifact from the year New York hit rock bottom, it would still be worth a listen. However, like the holiday standards they sought to lampoon, the songs here found a way of transcending their own time. Taken together, they provided the first real example of what an “alternative” Christmas record might sound like, one that’s guided the ethos of indie-label holiday releases ever since. Taken individually, they continue to offer a cathartic (but never wholly depressing) outlet for anyone who’s ever felt left out from a season predicated on joy. In 2018, that number’s probably pretty high.

Things have changed since 1981. New York got better, then worse again for different reasons. ZE shuttered in 1984, then came back in 2003. Alan Vega and Patty Donohue died, which still feels unfair. Christmas happened. It happens every year, even when things seem terrible. Even when things are terrible.

It’s not nostalgia, then, with which we look back upon those days. We don’t long for their return so much as we appreciate the people who lived through it all, the ones who looked at the garbage piles and the peep shows and the stick-up artists and made something as stupid as Christmas music anyway. If you’re feeling blue between now and the 25th, spin this record. You won’t necessarily feel better, but you’ll almost certainly feel less alone.

Essential Tracks: “Christmas on Riverside Drive”, “Christmas Wrapping”, and “No More Christmas Blues”

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