"WRAPPING" NOW A KEEPSAKE|
AKRON BEACON JOURNAL
By David Giffels
CHRIS BUTLER TUNE RELEASED BY AKRON'S WAITRESSES IN 1981 BECOMES A HOLIDAY STANDARD
If O. Henry had sketched out the story, it would go something like this:
Struggling Akron-born rock band is touring incessantly, trying to push their minor-hit single over the top. In midsummer, the record label president calls and says he wants all the bands on his roster to write a song for a Christmas album.
What? The timing's horrible; the band's songwriter is a notorious Scrooge on the subject of Christmas; and he's been clinging desperately to all his ideas for a second album.
But the boss has spoken, so in August the songwriter finds himself in a cab, quickly finishing lyrics on the way to a New York recording studio. They knock out the track in two days and hit the road again, returning their focus to the "real" songs they hope will make them immortal.
In November, the band is playing Rochester. The songwriter calls his wife. Great news - they're all over the radio!
He rejoices. The hard work has paid off. Their minor-hit single has finally cracked through.
"No," she says. "It's that Christmas song."
Twenty-three years later, it's still there, perennially programmed into shopping mall soundtracks and radio holiday playlists. Despite all those other songs he labored over, this one, the tossed-off Christmas tune, has achieved permanence.
Only thing is, O. Henry didn't write the story. The irony was wrought in the much more capable hands of real life.
The band was the Waitresses, formed in Akron a quarter-century ago by Chris Butler and best known (eleven months out of the year, anyway) for "I Know What Boys Like". The holiday song he wrote is "Christmas Wrapping".
You might not recognize the title; the phrase doesn't appear in the lyrics. You might not even recognize the lyrics - they're densely packed onto a crisp, white-funk jam. (Five minutes, 22 seconds, and singer Patty Donahue hardly draws a breath.) So, no - it's not a singalong. But if you've spent any time flipping through socks at a mall clothing store or listening to a collection of rock-era holiday standards, you've heard it.
The song's hook is less in the music and more in the story line: A harried urbanite with a failed love life has had enough of the holiday rush and decides she'll spend Christmas alone. But even this simple plan hits a snag. As she puts "the world's smallest turkey" into the oven on Christmas Eve, she realizes she's forgotten cranberries. So it's out to the all-night grocery where, "what to my wondering eyes should appear -- in the line it's that guy I've been chasing all year." They decide to spend Christmas alone, together.
True-to-life story, ironic twist, happy ending.
With that, it has become the wry theme to a distinctly modern tradition -- holiday depression.
That's how Butler sees it. His songwriting instinct has always been to make snappy three- minute short stories - character, plot, sax solo, neat little twist and out. When he thinks of Christmas Wrapping now, it strikes him as the outline for a Sex and the City script. Of course, the fact that he thinks of Christmas Wrapping now is itself the irony. It fits his inverse theory of hit making, that the song a band least expects to become popular is inevitably the one that will.
A couple of years after its 1981 release, Butler began to recognize Christmas Wrapping had legs.
"It kept wanting to be used in movies and TV," he says.
"It's always playing in the bar scene on cop shows, the holiday episode." The song has been re-released on all sorts of holiday collections, and in England it has become a standard on the level of White Christmas. In 1998, the Spice Girls recorded it. The royalties ebb and flow, but they always provide a considerable Christmas bonus. In a good year, the song can earn Butler the equivalent of a schoolteacher's annual salary; in a slow year, it can bring in enough tobuy a used Toyota.
Between that and the royalties from I Know What Boys Like, the 55-year-old Butler has managed to continue a music career that began here in the early 1970s, when he played with the Numbers Band and Tin Huey.
In addition to releasing a string of solo albums, he has produced records by celebrated songwriters Joan Osborne and Freedy Johnston and others. He also holds a Guinness world record for the "Longest Continuous Pop Song Ever Recorded and Commercially Released." (The Devil Glitch, 69 minutes long.)
For about 10 years, Butler has ushered in the holiday season with a "Wrappie" award. Through the Internet, he puts out the word: Whoever reports hearing the song first in a public setting is the winner. Butler donates $100 in that person's name to the children's section of the public libraryin Hoboken, N.J., where he now lives.
This year's Wrappie went to an acquaintance who heard the song at 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day on a Philadelphia rock station.
As for Butler, he hasn't heard it yet. (He doesn't listen to commercial radio and avoids malls.) But he knows from experience that it will blindside him when he least expects it.
"It stalks you," he says. The disposable tune that seemed like a sidetrack on the way to something better - that's the one with all the happy returns.
"Therein lies some great lesson about art and commerce," says Butler.
Sax solo, and out.
|from Stubble - a fanzine:|
CHRIS BUTLER - THE MUSEUM OF ME
"Although Chris brought us the semi-successful band The Waitresses, this new solo effort is nothing but crap. Shoddy recordings, outdated music and neither funny nor interesting lyrics combine to make this one of the worst listening experiences of all time - DB"
Gary Pig Gold recommends
TEN YOU MAY HAVE MISSED IN 2002|
As yet another twelve months bite dust, tis time again to whisk ears back
upon what the year past had to offer within the “Rock,” “Pop,” “Pop-Rock”
and (my personal favorite pigeonhole) “Otherwise” competitions. Now this
time, I present an alphabetical mix of curios both new and re-issue – with
even a couple of beauts which technically came out a month or twelve or
twenty outside our strict chronological criteria but failed to reach MY full
attention til A.D. 2002 – each and every single one of which, if they aren’t
already, do most definitely deserve an immediate place deep within your daily
The man, the far-from-myth, yes the supreme audio architect which is still Chris “I Used To Be A Square Peg, But I’m Alright Now” Butler has finally packed the absolute crème of his home-recorded (on Edison wax and Webster wire recorders, direct-to-lathe-and-PortaStudio, and even the Rolling Stones Mobile!) crop onto this one great big disc. Complete with just about everything from mini-song sketches (lifting off with the soothing benedictory “Hole In The Sky,” which opens “The Museum Of Me” just as “Meant For You” introduced the Beach Boys’ “Friends”) through to full-blown soundscapes of near-cinematic stretch (the lasagna western theme which is the Beatles’ authentic Studer four-track-recorded - Really! - version of “Bad Moon Over Mel Bay”), these seventy-one full minutes go a good sonic mile and then some past what one may rightfully expect from such an assemblage of perfectly unapologetic retro-fi’ness. Why, “The Idiot Trail” deftly chews up then spits straight out the comparative self-pomp of The Eagles at their most, yes, idiotic, while “The Bottom Of A Workingman’s Beer” and the Con Edison-powered “Power” sound nothing less than Lost Lennon Tapes for the End Times! Similarly, “The Man In The Razor Suit” takes but five-minutes-twelve to completely demo-lish such recent big-budget collections of triteness as those by Ryan Adams (et al et ALL). Intricately interspersed with snips of dialog and comparable found sounds, then trailed by a doubling helping of fascinating Bonus Footage to boot, this is one musical museum you undoubtedly will be returning to quite often after your initial visit… though you really should try to keep from thinkin’ bout them gurls so much you know, Chris!
Who the hell is Chris Butler? Well, what I realized is that he's one of those musicians that you really don't think you know but you do. Chris' work has crept into my life under many different guises. He was the front man for the Waitresses ("I Know What Boys Like") and wrote the theme song to that darling Sarah Jessica Parker sitcom gem, Square Pegs. He even found the time to record the longest pop song on record, "The Devil's Glitch" recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records and clocking in at a tortuous 69 minutes. Now does any of this ring a bell?
So, what's he been up to lately? Chris has been making the rounds at your local flea market, where he's found that one man's trash is truly another man's treasure. He's put together an assortment of old and new recording devices, has played around with his new toys, recording his activity for your listening pleasure. Here is The Museum of Me.
Sounds interesting enough, but only after repeated listenings could I piece together what this guy is trying to do. I was initially put off by Chris' quirky, shaky voice and confusing, choppy lyrics that were often too abstract for me to understand or appreciate, but this is not his concern. He wants to show you that he is a mad scientist in the recording studio, mixing and recording on vintage tape and wire and wax cylinders, and slapping it all together to produce an "eclectically recorded" album. Think beyond the actual music, start to consider the production and methodology of recording and this is when you discover that Butler may not have the greatest voice or lyrics but he knows cool and unusual ways of recording it all.
A few songs delightfully stand out such as the down-south themed "Swamp Boy," recorded on vintage tape in what sounds like a garage. This little snippet reminds me of early Modern Lovers. Another track, "Bad Moon in the Sky" is an enjoyable surfer psychedelic swoon comparable to the laid back strummings of the Tornadoes. The whole album has a comedic quality and the best example of this is "Thinking About Them Girls," a spoof of those 30's and 40's tunes recorded on an old wire cylinder.
So, yeah, I liked three songs, but I suffered through nine others. Try testing how open-minded you are by listening to a man brag about his electronic gadgetry (laptops, stereos, etc.) in spoken word over synthesized music. Think you'd dig it? Try track eight, "Power." Or maybe you're in the mood to hear a middle aged man pretending to be a teenaged boy singing about his confusing obsession with his best friend's sister. Then track seven, "Davey's Sister Home from College" is right up your alley.
Overall - could I pass this along to just anyone? Nope. I can think of a few friends that wouldn't return my phone calls if I dared to give them this CD as a birthday/Hanukah/Christmas gift. But there are those select few that might enjoy The Museum of Me: sound engineer techies/geeks, music historians or people with loads of patience.