Back in the 1950s and early 60s, the typical purchaser of what was then high-end audio equipment was not a kid who wanted it to listen to his Buddy Holly or Beatles records. It was his older brother, or perhaps his father, who had been weaned on the pop music of an earlier era or on classical music. For this reason, lushly orchestrated pop and classical albums were popular among audiophiles, and producing them became big business. The craze for “mood music” began with 101 Strings in the late 50s, but eventually, each of the major record labels had its own string brand: RCA had the Living Strings, the Hollyridge Strings were Capitol’s, Vee Jay had the Castaway Strings, Warner Brothers had the Londonderry Strings, and even the famous blues and R&B label, Chess, had the Soulful Strings. The Hollyridge Strings were quite successful, charting five albums between 1964 and 1966, covering the Beatles (making the Hot 100 with a version of “Love Me Do”), the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Nat King Cole. So were the Soulful Strings, who made the Billboard 200 album chart five times between 1967 and 1969, covering mostly R&B and jazz hits. Their single “Burning Spear” was a Hot 100 hit in 1968. The Living Strings charted but two albums, both in 1961. Of the major string brands, only 101 Strings managed a Top-10 album: The Soul of Spain in 1959.
The string brands were indeed brands rather than bands. The 101 Strings set the template, hiring European orchestras on the cheap and releasing the results under the brand name. The record-label string brands took the same tack. Recordings issued under the name of the Living Strings, for example, were often made by either the BBC Symphony or the London Symphony Orchestra. These albums were calculated to attract record-shop browsers, adorned with splashy covers (sometimes featuring scantily clad women) and often budget priced. And while only a few of them charted, they represented a pretty solid income stream for their labels—and they gained a good deal of airplay, too. But as the 70s wore on, the music made by these string brands faded from general popularity. The last of their recordings to go, however, were their Christmas records.
Long after most radio stations had given up lush instrumentals, Christmas albums by the Hollyridge Strings and the Living Strings and others remained in radio station music libraries, either for use as music beds in commercials or for airplay on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I can remember using them as late as the mid 1980s. Even today, that music provides a particular sort of holiday atmosphere that nothing else does. And why is that?
Christmas is a backward-looking occasion. When you watch TV tonight, take note of the ads. How many, overtly or by implication, refer to “an old-fashioned Christmas”? Look closely at the pictures on the Christmas cards. How many have a nostalgic Currier-and-Ives look, show carolers in Victorian garb, or Christmas trees decorated with candles or strings of popcorn? How about the Christmas cookie recipe at your house? Has it been handed down in the family? How many family traditions do you repeat each year? (Do you bake cookies only at Christmastime?)
Venerating the past isn’t all we’re doing when we observe these old-time rituals—to a certain extent, aren’t we actively trying to become the people we used to be? In days of yore, we were younger. People we love and have lost were still with us. Life was less complicated, we think. Simpler things made us happy, we think. And at Christmastime, we were the happiest of all, we think. Life in the present can’t measure up to that kind of ideal.
So we acknowledge, consciously or not, that today’s celebrations, whatever form they take, aren’t just like the ones we used to know, and we grasp at whatever we can to make them feel more like they used to. Thus the pull of cookies and Victoriana and lush orchestral music of the season. Especially the latter, because the perfect soundtrack for an old-fashioned celebration would epitomize our idealized past. It would be best if it had little or no referent in the modern world at all. It would have to be without the postmodern irony that infuses so many popular works of art today. It would have to be music that is exactly what it sounds like. That’s what those old-fashioned instrumental Christmas albums are. Nothing else does what they do.
(Rebooted from a couple of December 2007 posts.)