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Column: off the record..., vol. 12-546

@U2, December 23, 2012
By: Gary Boas


off the record, from @U2

This year marks the 25th anniversary of A Very Special Christmas, which featured U2's cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The album has raised millions of dollars for the Special Olympics, but as producer Jimmy Iovine tells it, charity wasn't the original impetus behind the record.

"The truth is, I wanted to make my dream Christmas album," he told the Los Angeles Times soon after the record's release, "and I knew the only way I could (get everyone's cooperation) was if we gave the money away … get money totally out of the equation." The artists he wanted weren't all on the same label, he said, so the question of what to do with the money likely would have scuttled the project otherwise.

Iovine had wanted to make a Christmas album for years. A self-professed fan of Christmas music -- especially of Phil Spector's and Elvis Presley's Christmas albums, both from the '60s -- he went to the store every year hoping to find a great new holiday release. But none was ever there.

"Most of the ones you hear are put together real fast," he said. "They go into the studio for a couple of days and concentrate on maybe two or three songs, and then just run through the rest. I wanted to make an album where you spent as much time as you do on a normal album, maybe 400 to 500 hours in the studio and working with different artists."

A Very Special Christmas was a tremendous success. The album has sold in excess of 4 million copies, and it spawned the popular A Very Special Christmas series, which has raised more than $100 million for the Special Olympics.

The success of the series surely played a role in the resurgence of Christmas albums in the 1990s and beyond (in the pop and rock realm; country music artists never really stopped making Christmas albums). A Very Special Christmas 2 was released in 1992, and in 1993 and 1994 we saw multiplatinum releases from Boyz II Men, Harry Connick Jr., Mariah Carey and Kenny G. Later in the decade, Hanson, Celine Dion and *NSYNC had success with Christmas albums.

Christmas music is now big business, with any number of artists -- some currently in the spotlight, some we haven't seen in a while -- releasing holiday albums. So if you're enjoying music from Cee Lo Green, Rod Stewart or Richard Marx this season, you can thank U2 for their role, however small, in making that record possible.

The current poll on the @U2 home page asks whether you would like to see the band record a Christmas album. Of course, in a way, they kind of already have.

There is no strict definition of Christmas music. It can include chants, litanies and hymns; classical pieces; traditional folk tunes; secular and religious carols; jazz interpretations; popular music; novelty songs; and everything in between. In many cases it directly invokes Christmas or the birth of Jesus Christ. In quite a few others, though, it refers more broadly to peace on Earth and good will toward men and women, to the festive mood of the holidays, or simply to the hope for snow in the forecast.

Sometimes -- and this is important -- songs aren't intended to be Christmas music but are nonetheless absorbed into the holiday canon. "Baby It's Cold Outside" is an example. And I've lately been hearing Vince Guaraldi's "Linus And Lucy" described as Christmas music (granted, the piece originally appeared in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but mainly because that was the first Peanuts special; it has been used in countless other specials since).

Now, consider U2's body of work. The band's music is informed throughout by the Christian faith of Bono, Edge and Larry. It includes many references to Jesus and to angels, a setting of a Psalm, and no fewer than four songs with either "Hallelujah" in the title or a sort of "Hallelujah" chorus ("Hallelujah Here She Comes," Bono's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the ZooTV version of "Running To Stand Still" and the single and Tribute To Heroes versions of "Walk On").

Even beyond this, it often offers calls for peace on Earth and good will toward men and women. And every now and then we're presented with a wintry scene -- in the song "October," for example, and in the videos for "New Year's Day" and "The Unforgettable Fire."

Then there's the music itself: Edge's chiming, bell-like guitars; the "ice notes" of the electric grand piano featured on October and War; the occasional strings and horns (and opera singer!); the ambient soundscapes evoking the stillness of a snowy winter's night. When combined with the themes noted above, these can suggest a sort of Christmas music -- a stately and solemn sort, more midnight Mass than office party revelry, more handbells than jingle bells.

My U2 Christmas album includes "October," "Scarlet," "40" and "Peace On Earth"; the less obvious choices "When I Look At The World" and "Neon Lights"; and of course, "Driving To Midnight Mass" and the 2008 cover of Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas." I briefly also considered "Promenade," the 1995 live version of "One" from Modena, and the 360 version of "Hallelujah." In the end, though, I decided to limit the playlist to those initial eight songs.

What's on your U2 Christmas album?

If Bono is planning on busking this Christmas Eve -- as he's done on Grafton Street the past couple of years -- he may have to watch his step. In July the Dublin City Council introduced a new code that says street performers must not set up within 50 meters of each other or let noise levels negatively impact nearby businesses or homes. Also, they're not allowed to "'hog' or monopolise a performance site."

At least one of the new rules likely won't matter: In an apparent attempt to weed out some of the more annoying performers, the code stipulates that street singers must have a repertoire of at least 20 songs. ("I feel sorry for the guy who is playing 'Wonderwall' all day," a Temple Bar busker told BBC News at the time.) I don't know how many songs Bono actually knows, but something tells me he's got it covered.

(c) @U2, 2012.

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