XMAS BONUS: Little St. Nick

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
XMAS BONUS: Little St. Nick

As we’re in the period between Christmas and New Year, the gap between episodes is going to be longer than normal, and the podcast proper is going to be back on January the ninth. So nobody has to wait around for another fortnight for a new episode, I thought I’d upload some old Patreon bonus episodes to fill the gap. Every year around Christmas the bonus episodes I do tend to be on Christmas songs and so this week I’m uploading three of those. These are older episodes, so don’t have the same production values as more recent episodes, and are also shorter than more recent bonuses, but I hope they’re still worth listening to.


We talked in the last bonus episode about how the American Christmas music canon more or less ends in 1963. One record that just got in under that wire was “Little Saint Nick”, recorded by the Beach Boys in October 1963 and released in December:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Little Saint Nick”]

Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ leader, was apparently inspired to write a Christmas song by Phil Spector — Wilson turned up to at least one of the sessions for the Spector Christmas album, and had briefly played piano during a couple of takes of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, although he wasn’t actually on the record itself, as Spector decided he wasn’t a good enough player.

The date the Beach Boys recorded their Christmas song, October the twentieth 1963, was actually a historic date for the group. We’ll talk about this more in a few weeks’ time when we next look at the Beach Boys in the main podcast, but they had gone through a bit of a lineup shuffle, and David Marks had played his last gig with the group the night before, while Al Jardine had rejoined the band shortly before that. That meant that this was the first session since their first single at which the Beach Boys were the classic five-person lineup of Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine.

There seems to be some confusion about what happened at that session, as they recorded two backing tracks. One of them became the “Little Saint Nick” that was a hit, but they also recorded a track that later became an album track called “Drive In”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Drive In”]

But there also exists a recording of that backing track, but with the lyrics to “Little Saint Nick”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Drive In (Little Saint Nick version)”]

I’ve seen conflicting accounts of how that track came to exist. Some say that they tried both backing tracks with the same lyrics at the original session, and that they then wrote the “Drive In” lyrics for the track that didn’t make the cut as “Little Saint Nick”, while others say that they actually sung the “Little Saint Nick” lyrics to the “Drive In” track as a joke a few months later, long after the original “Little Saint Nick” had already come out.

Whichever is the truth, the version of “Little Saint Nick” that eventually came out as a single was this one, which became one of the last holiday classics in the US Christmas canon:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Little Saint Nick”]

“Little Saint Nick” is very clearly modelled on an earlier hit by the group, “Little Deuce Coupe”, and so it makes sense to me that the track that was chosen was the originally intended one, as musically that’s quite close to the earlier song.

“Little Saint Nick” was only a moderate success on the main chart, but it made number three on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart, which was enough of a success that the group decided the next year to record a full Christmas album. That album included a remixed version of “Little Saint Nick”, with the backing track stripped down to sound more like the rest of the album’s first side, which was rush-recorded with few overdubs.

That album was recorded in a style that the Beach Boys did quite a bit at that time, with a side for “the kids” — uptempo original songs — and a side for “the adults”, with orchestral versions of more traditional Christmas songs, arranged by the Four Freshmen’s arranger Dick Reynolds, including a gorgeous version of “We Three Kings”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “We Three Kings”]

The Beach Boys would have another attempt at making a Christmas album, in 1977, which went unreleased at the time — mostly because much of it is truly terrible. However, there were a couple of worthwhile tracks on the album — Brian Wilson’s “Winter Symphony”:

[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Winter Symphony”]

And his brother Dennis’ “Morning Christmas”:

[Excerpt: Dennis Wilson, “Morning Christmas”]

Much of that album has since been released, with their 1964 Christmas album, on the compilation “Ultimate Christmas”. Both Brian Wilson and Mike Love have since released solo Christmas albums. Both are patchy affairs, but Wilson’s has a lovely version of “Joy to the World” as a bonus track:

[Excerpt: Brian Wilson, “Joy to the World”]

And it has a few other genuinely nice tracks, while the highlight of Love’s is rather less impressive — a reworking of “Shortenin’ Bread” titled “Reason For the Season”:

[Excerpt: Mike Love, “Reason for the Season”]

Both albums also include remakes of “Little Saint Nick”, the one Beach Boys Christmas song that has really entered the consciousness of the general public. And while this podcast episode might have ended up being too late for you to still be hearing that one on the radio, I’m sure you’ll start hearing it again, for the fifty-eighth straight year, come the last week of November 2021. Because some things, at least, stay the same no matter what’s happening in the rest of the world.

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