Christmas Must Be Tonight
The Band’s Journey With The Magi
The Gospel According To Robbie Robertson . . . The tree goes down. The bills stack up. Festive December segues into troubled January. Goodbye Santa. Hello I.R.S.. That Christmas spirit doesn’t linger long. However, the Christmas music lingers on the home stereo days after the presents and celebration. Some 20th Century Christmas recordings are so good they’re enjoyed anytime of the year: Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You album, Willie Nelson’s Hill Country Christmas album, John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas,” plus a handful of seasonal songs by Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris and Nat King Cole. Then there’s the one that slips up on you each year, The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” It wasn’t a hit. It was hardly heard. More people should know about the song* and comprehend its joy, yet corporate ineptitude held sway. Reportedly, Capitol Records, The Band’s label, meant to promote its release during the Christmas season of ’75, but the A&R Department let it slide.
“Christmas Must Be Tonight” was a highlight of Islands, a patchwork of songs from here and there that made up The Band’s last studio album (at least that of the original group). The Band’s guitarist and primary songwriter, Robbie Robertson, said he was tired of the road, thus pulling the plug on a great rock institution. Robertson also had other things on his mind, like the recent birth of his son, Sebastian. The blessing of Sebastian’s birth inspired Robertson, causing him to dwell on another birth some 2000 years before. Hence, “Christmas Must Be Tonight.”
The Band delivered a lovely and earnest performance on the euphonic song, as they did with most of Robertson’s material. Rick Danko, taking the role of shepherd abiding in the field, is the first of the three singers to share the Christmas story. The words aren’t straight from the Gospels, but the spirit hews closely to what’s reported in the second chapter of Luke. Danko is joined by mates Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, and they harmonize beautifully. The feelings of a “simple herdsman such as I,” spellbound by the angels calling on him to fear not and rejoice are conveyed, as is the humility of witnesses in the fields and those in the manger. It’s a great retelling of a familiar narrative by a master songwriter. Robbie Robertson understands the way an humble shepherd felt, just as he empathized with the plight of a Virgil Caine.
Hearing Danko, Manuel and Helm together on the chorus is always wondrous. Their performance reflects the joyful spirit of those who regard the story as indisputable and monumental truth, while also illustrating the delight felt by Robertson when his son entered the world.
How a little baby boy bring the people so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas, must be tonight
Many parents have sensed the same elation as did Robbie Robertson. When mine and Gena’s son, Andrew, was born one April day in ’86, it seemed I flew to the waiting room to tell family members. My mother said she had never seen me so happy. True enough; no one had.
“Christmas Must Be Tonight” was recorded during the sessions for The Band’s Northern Lights -Southern Cross album, released in late ’75. The album was the group’s last cohesive studio collection and would have served as a more proper setting for “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which would not be made available until the March ’77 release of Islands, a few months after The Band’s farewell performance in San Francisco. The song would have been welcomed with open arms, especially by those of us working at the Atlanta Peaches Records and Tapes during the ’75 Christmas season.
As Christmas Day drew closer, it meant that soon we wouldn’t have to hear Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” dozens of times each work shift. The bassist for Emerson Lake and Palmer had just released his solo single and decision-makers at his label, Atlantic Records, did back flips to promote it. Lyrically, the song isn’t an endorsement of the Christmas message and that’s fine; it’s a big world out there and perspectives are shaped by environment and what’s experienced. But the song’s bombastic production set up against Lake’s preening vocal was too much. It’s a hazard when rock stars want their songs to sound like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
What Lucky Men We Were . . . . For those of us working the front at Peaches, we got to hear the boom, boom, boom in Lake’s song a dozen or more times each hour. Atlantic Records had brought in a large TV with what then passed for a video player. As shoppers walked in the store, there was always an opportunity for them to see and hear Greg Lake proclaim his faith in Father Christmas. Welcome now my friends to the show that never ends.
One day a few of us decided enough was enough and found a football game on the set to watch. Greg Lake could take five….. Five hours or more would be fine, Greg.
The football game was on. Who knew who was playing? Who cared? We had been liberated from All-Greg-Lake-All- The-Time.
One of our managers came walking up and stopped to watch the game in progress, as if he had some interest in it. And for a few minutes he did. Then he remembered he was in management and said, “Get that Greg Lake thing back on. Do you know how pissed the Atlantic people would be if they came by and saw us watching football on their set?” Knowing the local Atlantic guys to be reasonable sorts, I answered, “Oh, they’d understand.”
*Robbie Robertson recorded a version of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” for the 1988 film, Scrooged. The latter-day version falls far short of the beauty created by The Band more than a decade earlier. Let’s just say it’s a real ’80s version.