BOBZILLA/THE WORST NOEL 7" SIDE B / EDIT BY C.C
Towards the end of 1982, this record release was presented to me as a fait accompli by Chris Knox and Doug Hood. We were still getting to know each other, and this could have been seen as an intolerable insult, a test, or a Christmas present.
Chris had travelled down to Wellington to oversee a batch of cuttings at EMI. This is where the start of the mechanical process of making an actual record begins. It is the first step in a chain of crucial steps but is key in that the music, represented as magnetic code on a master tape, is made into something physical. Grooves are cut into a disc, which is the start of a sequence of plating, which results in a stamper, which presses the actual vinyl records you can play and listen to using an electronic player, amplifier and speakers. Every record made seemed to be both a miracle and a bit of a rigmarole.
Being an intelligent, close and informed listener, Chris understood what a substantial and positive difference sitting in on an actual cutting session and having some input as the maker of the idiosyncratic noises on the tape could make to the final pressed-up record. Sending off the tapes for a disinterested engineer to cut was a recipe for an unsatisfactory pressing at best and an absolute disaster at worst. So on a number of occasions, Chris travelled down to oversee a batch of master tapes for cutting. By doing so, he developed a rapport with one of the engineers, Frank Douglas, and got some very good-sounding records out of it as a result (The Clean's Boodle and Great Sounds, Tall Dwarfs' Louis Likes His Daily Dip - to name but a few).
On this trip to Wellington, Chris had an extra master. It was by The Jessels. Chris and Doug Hood lived on Jessel Street in Grey Lynn with their partners, Barbara and Carol. Several sources (not that Discogs can ever be considered a genuine source) include Hamish and David Kilgour as precipitants, sometimes as sole contributors. Still, I have never heard mention of their involvement, nor can I hear it (but I am happy to be corrected). “The Jessels” would print onto the blank reverse of pre-printed 7” record covers, and I was told to press up the vinyl smartly and to wait to see what it was. It was a surprise. It was 1982, and fortunately, I was still young enough to like surprises.
THE JESSELS - BOBZILLA/THE WORST NOEL 7" COVER
Before the records, the covers turned up at the Flying Nun office in Christchurch. Some records might have gone to Auckland directly. They were primitive pieces of home-printed art. Each one is unique in an unsatisfactory, incomplete kind of way. I could read the word “Jessels”, and I could see an ugly, angry stylised cat, but little else made sense either by design (or lack of), or by the erratic nature of the haphazard printing - which might have been stamped by a child rather than “printed” by an adult. This sort of thing was almost normal in 1982, especially amongst our lot; it was a practical form of self-expression, and the doing was a bonding thing. Not that this lot of friends need any additional bonding at all.
So, just weeks before Christmas, the pressings turned up. As I saw it, it was clearly a Christmas record. For what other reason would justify the effort involved at that time of year? So, the timing was impeccable - but tight if you consider the logistics. Fortunately, I had no idea what I was dealing with, so I showed restraint when ordering the quantities. If I had known it was a Christmas record, I could have lost all sense and ordered thousands. I felt somewhat confident and sure of myself towards the end of 1982. Roughly one and half years into Flying Nun, and things were good.
No, I had maintained uncharacteristic wisdom and ordered the minimum pressing of 300 copies, which was good because this Jessels single was not to everybody’s taste. One side featured a song about the Jessel Street cat Bob and was called 'Bobzilla', and the other was a sing-along of ‘Worst Noel’ with a Christmas carol vibe. Both songs were recorded in a rudimentary manner on Chris’s 4-track. The performances left something to be desired, to be truthful, with handclaps and chanting with the occasional slap on a piece of cardboard stand-in for conventional musical or vocal expression. Although made cheerfully by friends, it sounds half-hearted, and the enthusiasm audibly wanes in both songs. The results could be described as “fair”. It’s built for a one-off listening experience, rather than repeated and seriously considered evaluations. Was it a piece of Knoxian anti-Christmas conceptual art, or was it daft flatmates high on sherry mucking with the 4 track in the living room? The final weeks before Christmas 1982 were spent trying to frantically sell those 300 singles with the fear that any unsold would never sell, ever.
But believe it or not, selling something that was pretty hard to explain was fun. Which fits in with the Christmas spirit thing, baby Jesus and all. 300 7” singles aren’t many, but it was hard work, and there were a few left, which were impossible to shift in the sanity and clear light of day that seems to shine during the rest of every year.
While I have always had reservations about this release, I can see that I must learn to embrace it. Firstly as a part of the Flying Nun oeuvre that is personally unavoidably connected to me - as an almost forgotten quirky Christmas release in one remote corner of 40 years worth of Flying Nun’s more “conventional” releases. Secondly, whether anyone likes it or not, as a tiny particle of a much bigger and weirder genre - that of the Christmas record.
There is so much to write about beyond scraping the barrel with “Snoopy’s Christmas” (so many decent musicians’ first record - how?), I still own both Bing Cosby’s White Christmas and Boney M’s Christmas Album, and once a year I play and regret both. There are thousands of these Christmas genre releases, and the one by a favourite artist will tempt you, but the overwhelming chance that you will be disappointed is considerable. The Jessels’ 'Worst Noel' is a winner against these losers.
My mother once asked me to bring home a Christmas cassette for the big family Christmas. It was a failure. I didn’t know what I was picking, and this one was truly appalling. The long-term lesson learnt was to research and pick cautiously. The poor-quality Christmas releases are cringe-inducingly shocking. Only the very few good ones have genuine merit or charm.
I’m picking four releases before my Christmas record finale - which makes it five - and I’ll add The Jessels back in there to make it six. I never knew my mother had a passion for Perry Como until the day of her funeral, where her fondness for the man and his smooth crooner voice was discussed in the eulogy, and at least two of his songs were included in the spare selection of music played. We are a secretive lot, but I was somewhat surprised. Perry Como released at least 7 Christmas albums during his career. Despite its atrocious cover (another genre-wide tendency), I am picking 1968’s The Perry Como Christmas Album, on cassette, of course, in memory of my late mother.
Low’s singular Christmas (originally released on Tugboat, 1999) is an album with eight songs, including 'Just Like Christmas', 'Little Drummer Boy', and 'Silent Night', all given the distinctly Low treatment, which is partially made unique by the voice. This choice is a tribute to the person and the voice of Mimi Parker, who died several months ago. It is a rare example of a quality modern Christmas release. They don’t attempt too many songs, and the selection of material is just right. The result is distinctly Low, yet the essence of the seasonal songs shines through. Magical stuff.
The Carpenters are classic West Coast easy listening, an uncool chart-topping zillion-selling duo consisting of keyboard studio genius brother and drummer singer sister who sadly died in 1983 of anorexia nervosa. The duo’s sound operated in a narrow space between precise instrumentation created by Richard’s arrangements and keyboard tinkering, the best of LA session musicians, a dollop of Hollywood schmaltz and Karen’s bland but excitingly clear voice. Somehow Christmas Portrait (A&M Records, 1978) is a magical thing, despite the lashings of cheese. It’s a Christmas album, so in a perverse way, cheese is OK. The cover is built to appeal to one’s grandmother, enough to put me off listening to it for 50 years; don’t be fooled. The quality drops off a little, but the first half is Christmas gold on fire.
Last Xmas, my daughter and I bonded over Phoebe Bridger's Christmas songs. Here we are talking about a number of releases over recent years culminating in this year’s six-song compilation So Much Wine. 'Seven o’clock News/Silent Night' is a highlight - a poignant cover of the 1966 Simon and Garfunkel original with an updated broadcast soundtrack running through the Bridgers’ rendition of the Christmas staple, 'Silent Night'. Bridger’s fine voice suits this material, adding a subtle modernity that lifts it well above the traditional. All of the cover art is seemingly superficially fun, with a white ghost up to no good but looking increasingly distressed and sad when more closely scrutinised. The painterly art is well done, and the result is affecting. There are no records to buy; these releases are digital only.
And the fifth and final Christmas record pick? We’ve gone full circle over 40 Flying Nun years from The Jessels and their rough shot, 'Worst Noel', to new signing Erny Belle and her Christmas best shot, 'Meri Kirihimete'. Congratulations, Erny, with our first song title in te reo. I’m ashamed that it has taken 40 years for this to come about and so proud that it finally has.
'Meri Kirihimete' is not a simple song. There is a superficial surface sheen that tentatively makes it a seasonal song of cheer, with nostalgic seasonal keyboard work and a touch of fragmented guitar strum. There are unsettling bent notes and gently off-key singing, which all help build a sense of unease. The key words "champagne, holidays, Christmas" are repeated, but much is left unsaid. The song has a lethargic torpor that seems to drift towards something unspeakable, and it’s not going to be the washing up. The song is a languid hymn to seasonal drink induced shapeshifting. While 'Meri Kirihimete' is compelling and seducing, the slow, sinister tension suggests something else is lurking, something malevolent. This song is more sophisticated than anything else you will find out there this Christmas. The Jessels’ 'Worst Noel' sounds simple and jolly now, while 'Meri Kirihimete' sounds honest, deeply menacing, and a remarkable pop song for the season; enjoy.
Meri Kirihimete everybody.