The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: holiday classics, old and new.
Rallying for good causes was part of the job description for superstar ’80s musicians. In late 1984, Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof and Midge Ure of Ultravox co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as a benefit for famine-stricken Ethiopia. To record the song, the pair managed to herd dozens of chart luminaries—including George Michael, Boy George, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, and Bananarama—into the studio for a marathon 24-hour session. Released under the name Band Aid, “Christmas” immediately shot to the top of the U.K. singles charts.
Band Aid’s success opened the charitable floodgates worldwide: In 1985 alone, musicians banded together for USA For Africa’s “We Are The World” single and the We Are The World LP, the Geldof-planned bi-continental Live Aid concert, the first edition of Farm Aid, and Steven Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City.” The poverty-fighting human-chain initiative Hands Across America followed in 1986, complete with a theme song featuring contributions from Toto.
The star-studded 1987 holiday album A Very Special Christmas arrived right in the thick of the decade’s streak of music-industry generosity. At the urging of co-creator Jimmy Iovine’s wife, the record’s beneficiary was the Special Olympics, an organization that presents athletic games for people with intellectual disabilities. But unlike many other charity projects, this one came from a deeply personal place: Iovine put together the record to honor the memory of his father, who passed away in 1985.
Iovine’s connections as a superstar producer ensured the participation of an A-list roster, including Bruce Springsteen, Sting, John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi, U2, and Madonna. In fact, his persuasive powers likely held just as much weight as the charitable element. “When Jimmy Iovine came with this idea, I knew it was something that we couldn’t turn down—although I’m sure we tried to turn it down,” Bono said in a documentary about the series, A Very Special Christmas: 25 Years Of Bringing Joy To The World. Iovine’s determination to aim high had much to do with his emotional investment in the project—it’s not a stretch to say he was also using the record as a way to grieve for his dad. For example, he personally co-produced the Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band version of his late father’s favorite song, “The Little Drummer Boy.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that A Very Special Christmas is often sentimental. What’s more unexpected is that the album’s most mawkish moments come from some of its brashest artists. The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde turns in a lovely, smoky vocal performance on what amounts to a smooth-jazz take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” while a ragged-sounding (but sincere) Stevie Nicks tackles “Silent Night.” And while initial copies of A Very Special Christmas found Bon Jovi covering the ribald Clarence Carter tune “Back Door Santa,” later ones found the band in tamer territory, warbling through a sleigh-bell-shaken sock-hop croon on “I Wish Every Day Could Be Like Christmas.”
The song choices from other artists, on the other hand, completely suit their style at the time. Sting, who in 1987 was in Serious Solo Artist mode, turned in a chant-filled, solemn version of a folk carol called “Gabriel’s Message.” John Cougar Mellencamp and his band took a jaunty Americana approach to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland” is icy synth-pop with skittering drum programming. Other songs capture artists at the top of their game: Madonna reached peak Betty Boop with her coquettish take on “Santa Baby,” while Whitney Houston soared on an uplifting version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and Run-DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” is inventive, smart hip-hop. (Incidentally, one of the songs “Hollis” sampled is “Back Door Santa.”)
But A Very Special Christmas’ highlight is U2’s take on the Darlene Love-popularized, Phil Spector co-written “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” In 1987, the quartet was in the midst of its American music obsession—and, judging by the performance of this song, already prepping for the following year’s Rattle And Hum. From the Wall Of Sound-style production and stacks of harmonies to crackling, vintage-sounding guitars, the song underscores Bono’s assertion that “we’ve spent the last 10 years of our musical life trying to impersonate Phil Spector.”
U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of many A Very Special Christmas cuts that still receives heavy radio airplay during the holiday season. (Others include Madonna, Eurythmics, Houston, and Mellencamp.) The enduring nature of these songs is a testament to the time and effort Iovine put into curating and guiding the release. He took a year off from work to focus on the record and traveled to the artists when necessary; for example, he recorded Houston in North Carolina as she was on her way to a show. (She did the song in one take.)
More crucially, the collection smartly focused mostly on familiar compositions; during the ’80s, charity originals tended toward to be saccharine or even inadvertently condescending (from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life”). As a result, A Very Special Christmas stands on its own as a credible artistic achievement and a fine collection of holiday music; the charitable angle is just icing on the cake.
Thanks to the success of the first A Very Special Christmas—and the popularity of subsequent volumes—the series is still going. Still, the sequels never quite reached the star power of the original. For every truly timeless moment (a Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love duet; original songs by Smashing Pumpkins and Tom Petty; No Doubt’s horn-peppered cover of The Vandals’ “Oi! To The World”), the series is littered with plenty of forgotten, then-trendy bands (SR-71, City High, Powder) or cringe-inducing songs (Sean Kingston’s reggae-lite “Little Drummer Boy”; Eve 6 lurching through a third-rate grunge tune). Still, the financial impact of A Very Special Christmas is undeniable: Royalties from the albums total well over $100 million, which has allowed the Special Olympics’ health and fitness programs to grow in 159 countries, and funds continue to roll in with each passing year.
When a new compilation or concert draws musicians together for a cause, they’re frequently borrowing the blueprint of A Very Special Christmas and other efforts from the ’80s. But in today’s fragmented, niche-filled music culture, it’s hard to imagine a charity effort enduring past one or two news cycles—much less becoming a permanent part of the seasonal pop-culture lexicon the way that A Very Special Christmas has.
Monday: A new theme begins with another Jim Henson Christmas effort.