Top 11 Rockin’ Christmas Songs

Frank MastropoloCategories:Latest NewsTop 11

Rock Cellar Magazine

It’s that time of year when everybody hears Christmas songs everywhere — but which ones truly rock? Here’s a few that definitely do …

“The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live.”

— George Carlin

  1. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney played every instrument on 1979’s “Wonderful Christmastime” including the synthesizer that created all of its echoey chord progressions. It was McCartney’s first solo effort after Wings’ final LP, 1979’s Back to the Egg. The band took part in the song’s video and performed it during Wings’ UK tour in late 1979.

“The line between what Paul was doing solo and the band was not hard and fast,” recalled guitarist Laurence Juber in Medium.  “We were aware of the fact he was doing his solo project, so it wasn’t really much of an issue. It was a little crazy the first time Wings did ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ live. They hadn’t told me there was going to be fake snow falling down. So I opened my mouth to sing the ‘choir of angels’ backing vocals, and I got a mouthful of fake snow [laughs]. I don’t think any of my band mates noticed, but I’m sure some of the audience did.”

  1. “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John

“Step Into Christmas” was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin the morning of Nov. 11, 1973. On his site,  John notes a 1973 interview in which he said that this was the first standalone single written by the two. “The Christmas single is a real loon about and something we’d like to do a lot more of. We’ve never written a song especially tailored to be a single.”

The song would reach No. 1 on the Billboard Christmas Singles chart. It was recorded the same afternoon it was written. “I came up with this pretty cool acoustic/electric guitar riff,” said Davey Johnstone, “and we were off to the races!”

John incorporated elements of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production techniques in recording “Step Into Christmas.” “We wanted to make an homage to Phil Spector,” John told the Sunday Post.  “Part of what made Phil Spector records were the rooms, the musicians and the ambience.”

  1. “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen

In the Charles Schulz comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy imagined himself battling a real-life German World War I pilot, the Red Baron. In 1966, writer Dick Holler and producer Phil Gernhard wrote “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a novelty tune by the Royal Guardsmen that shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song would spawn numerous Snoopy spin-offs that included “The Return of the Red Baron,” “Snoopy for President,” and 1966’s “Snoopy’s Christmas.”

The Royal Guardsmen were high school and college students in the Tampa Bay area who played parties and dance halls around Florida when they were discovered by Gernhard. “We were a much better band than the ‘Snoopy’ songs implied,” organist Billy Taylor told the Tampa Bay Times.  “And that was sort of an issue after a while. We wanted to record bigger and better material. They’d let us record two or three things, and then never press it or promote it.”

In the end, the Royal Guardsmen didn’t prosper creatively or financially. Gernhard did not get permission from Schulz before releasing the first “Snoopy” record. “Phil sent a copy of the record and a letter to Charles Schulz,” singer Barry Winslow said in Crazed Fanboy. “Charles looked at it but never sent a response on whether we could do this or not. We didn’t get his blessings. His lawyers smelled money and, whether Charles cared or not, the lawyers put a ding in us!

“Schulz eventually gave his consent, they got a pretty healthy chunk of money, and we moved right on down the road.”

  1. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee

Johnny Marks knew his way around writing Christmas songs. Marks wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Lee was just thirteen when she recorded the song in 1958. It did not become a hit until 1960, when “I’m Sorry” made Lee a star. The song has been a holiday hit ever since. “I don’t think you ever get tired of the well-written, well-crafted songs,” Lee told the Associated Press. “They’re easy to sing, and they stand the test of time.”

Recorded in Nashville in July, Lee recalled that producer Owen Bradley used a trick to create a Christmas atmosphere. “Owen had the studio all freezing cold with the air conditioning, and he had a Christmas tree all set up to kind of get in the mood just a little bit,” Lee said. “We had a lot of fun.”

  1. “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

Released in 1957, “Jingle Bell Rock” was one of the first songs to link Christmas with rock music. “I wasn’t sure about putting rock ‘n’ roll into Christmas,” Helms told the Los Angeles Times. “But it’s just one of those songs. You never know.”

“Bobby originally did not want to do it because he didn’t believe it was right to mix rock and roll with Christmas,” recalled Helms’ manager John Kleiman on radio’s Hoosier History Live.  “So the song does not mention Christmas anywhere.”

The song was written by Joseph Beale and James Boothe, but that was disputed by Helms. “I wrote the music, but I didn’t get the credit,” Helms claimed in Classic Bands.“‘Jingle Bell Rock’ didn’t have no bridge in it. So, I changed that. They said you just sing it however you want to. Change it, ’cause I got the publishing. You just change it however you want to. It don’t matter about that. I never got no credit because I didn’t know that much about it.”

  1. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid

Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats was inspired to help the people of Ethiopia when he saw a BBC report about the famine sweeping that country in 1984. Geldof contacted Ultravox singer Midge Ure and together they wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” “It was a song written for a specific purpose: to touch people’s heartstrings and to loosen the purse strings,” Ure told Rolling Stone.  The lyrics, he said, “had to be brutal. We were looking at television pictures of children spending five minutes trying to stand up.”

Geldof amassed a super group of mostly British and Irish musicians to form Band Aid. The song was recorded in one day at London’s Sarm Studios and released Dec. 3, 1984. The stars included Sting, George Michael, Bono, and Simon Le Bon. “I was the first one Bob called,” said Le Bon. “He told me what it was about, and he said, ‘I have an idea. We should make a charity record. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Yes, mate. Absolutely.’ But it wasn’t sold to me as, ‘This is going to be a whole pile of musical legends’; it was, ‘You and Sting do it.’ I thought I was going to get half the song. I was a bit pissed off, because when I walked into [Sarm Studios] they’re already recording somebody else singing one of my lines!”

  1. “Little Saint Nick” by the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys released “Little Saint Nick” as a single in 1963 and included the tune the following year in The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. The holiday song was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. “To me, it was a terrific nod to the car songs that had become so popular,” Al Jardine noted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It has that great shuffle feel of ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ and it captures the Christmas spirit, I think. It has that wonderful, typical Brian Wilson genius for melody. There’s just a special feeling about it.”

Wilson re-recorded “Little Saint Nick” and another track, “The Man With All the Toys,” for his 2005 solo album, All I Really Want for Christmas. “I came up with the song ‘Little Saint Nick’ when I was in my car and I wrote the melody and the lyrics in my head without instruments,” Wilson recalled in Record Collector. “I chose to re-record them because I thought we could do a better version of those songs than the Beach Boys and we did, too.

“My memories of recording that 1964 record was a real happy time for us, the Beach Boys and I were real happy doing it.”

“Little Saint Nick” by Brian Wilson

  1. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band

Beginning in 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched peace campaigns to protest the ongoing War in Vietnam. The couple invited the press into their hotel rooms for Bed-Ins and erected billboards that read, “War Is Over! If You Want It.” “It’s gimmicks and salesmanship,” Lennon said at the time. “And if that’s what’ll put it across, that’s the way to do it. Whether you’re protesting against the conditions you live in or the conditions you work in, or the conditions of the whole world.”

“Happy Xmas” is reportedly based on the melody of “Stewball,” a traditional English ballad. “’Happy Xmas’ Yoko and I wrote together,” Lennon said in a Playboy interview. “It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message — the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them and that they have no control, then they have no control.”

“Stewball” by the Hollies

  1. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” was first performed by Eddie Cantor on his radio show in November 1934. Cantor sold more than 30,000 records in twenty-four hours and the song has been popular ever since. Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters and the Four Seasons all had hits with the tune over the past decades. In 1963 producer Phil Spector gave the song his Wall of Sound treatment in a recording by the Crystals.

That version inspired Bruce Springsteen to perform “Santa Claus” live at C.W. Post College in Brookvile, NY in 1975. First released in 1982, the song has become part of Springsteen’s setlist during the holiday season.

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by the Crystals

  1. “Father Christmas” by the Kinks

The Kinks released “Father Christmas” in 1977, a song with an attitude that suited the punk rock era. The song tells of a department store Santa mugged by kids for his toys. “When the record came out we were on tour with a very successful band at the time supporting them,” Ray Davies told radio station KSWD. “I went on dressed as Santa at the end of the show to do ‘Father Christmas.’ And the other band found it hard to follow us. The following night with the same band I went to run on but there was a bunch of heavies preventing me from running on stage. And I was protesting. but the people said, ‘The Kinks didn’t do an encore but Santa Claus was there and they were stopping him from going on stage.'”

“It was a lot of fun,” Dave Davies told ABC News Radio. “I even do it in my own set sometimes. It’s a very funny song. ‘Father Christmas’ is very special to me, ’cause [it was] an opportunity to put interesting guitar parts in there . . . guitar riffs that sound great.”

  1. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love

Darlene Love recorded “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in 1963 for the LP A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. The legendary producer applied his Wall of Sound recording techniques to a collection of holiday standards. “It was the one original song on the Christmas album, and I had no idea it was going to really do anything,” Love told Entertainment Weekly.  “I knew at the time when we recorded it it was a great song, but a Christmas song then a hit? That doesn’t happen. Bing Crosby had ‘White Christmas’ a million years ago. That was a big Christmas hit. I’m not saying it’s as big as ‘White Christmas,’ but people put it up there. It’s like everybody has now started to do it in their Christmas shows, and everybody has started to do it on their television shows and in their live shows. It’s becoming the song to do. And that makes me proud, that I was the original person that recorded it.”

Love’s performance of the song became a tradition on The David Letterman Show that began in 1986 and continued until the program’s last holiday show in 2014. “I was doing a show at the Bottom Line in New York City called Leader of the Pack with Paul Shaffer,” recalled Love. “So one night he asked David to come down and see the show. On the show the next night, David tells Paul, ‘Are you still doing that show down at the Bottom Line?’ And Paul said yes. And he said, ‘Well, you know that song that that girl sings? That Christmas song? That’s the greatest Christmas song I’ve ever heard. We need to get her on the show.’ I thought it was going to be a one-time-only thing. It happened year after year after year.”


“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Roy Wood became a glam rock pioneer after he left Electric Light Orchestra to form Wizzard. The band released “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” in late 1973. Wood and band members Mike Burney (saxophone) and Rick Price (bass) described in Q magazine the story behind the song.

“I’d been doing really boring big band gigs on the ballroom circuit, so when Roy offered me a job in Wizzard I was just knocked out,” said Burney. “I used to say to him, ‘Roy, being in this band, it’s like Christmas every day.’ And, as far as I know, Roy picked up on that as a song title.”

“I decided to make a Christmas single because they’d been unfashionable for years,” said Wood. “We thought it would be worth trying a real rock and roll Christmas song.”

The vocal tracks were the most important thing,” added Price. “We always tried to get a sort of party vibe when we recorded the vocals. I would do a lot of the high and low vocal parts. We didn’t go in for drugs, but mostly we were drunk. I can still smell every breath of vodka in that record.”

“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard

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