Merry Fuckin’ Christmas (1999)

This album upended my entire high school experience. Before I made it, I had some friends but lived under the radar of certain students who were too cool to acknowledge me. After I made it, I became more popular than I’d ever been and was considered a peer by all of those cooler-than-thou people.

But I’m getting a little ahead of the plot here.

In many cases there’s some serious overlap between the Papa Ghostface albums I was making with Gord in 1999 and 2000 and my solo albums from the same time, with one of each often being recorded concurrently, or very close together. Though I didn’t grasp it at the time, now I can see the albums almost operate like siblings.

SCREAMING NIPPLES and SINGIN’ THE OESOPHAGUS TO SLEEP form a manic two-headed sex-drenched beast of lo-fi experimentation, with me just beginning to figure out what I could do with equipment more complex than the simple tape recorder I was used to working with. HORSEMOUTH and LIVE AT THE NAKED GIRAFFE THEATER share some low end mud and speaker-blowing screams, and they were explosions of inspiration that both ended up on CD the same day a new school year was starting up. PAPER CHEST HAIR is the warped mirror image of the weirdly accessible songs on CHILDREN HAVE NO EYES.

And this album, in its own way, continues the insanity I’d just tapped into with Gord on YOU’RE A NATION.

The sleep-deprivation that fed the madness on that album was still in full swing. I was knee-deep in the early stages of a very strange collaborative relationship with Jesse Topliffe, forced to ignore my stranger musical impulses in deference to someone who was after nothing less than world domination through pop song-craft. In-between sessions with Jesse, I began and then abandoned a projected full-length album that eventually emerged as the two-song SLEEP-DEPRIVED EP.

Then, in the middle of one of my grade eleven classes, there was a throwaway epiphany. I got the idea — mostly as a joke — to take a group of well-known Christmas songs and rewrite them as vulgar, sex-infested bits of filth. I scratched out some ideas for song titles, having a good laugh, not thinking anything of it.

After rewriting “Silver Bells” as Xmas Smells over two days in my first-period math class — which I knew I was going to fail anyway, so suddenly and completely had my facility for the subject deserted me in the face of new concepts that made no sense to me at all — I began to realize I had the makings of my next solo album right here. It would be a very radio-unfriendly assassination of overplayed holiday standards.

So many times, I’d been forced to listen to Whitney Houston singing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and no end of other schlock during the Christmas season. It no longer made me feel very festive. It was just grating. Now I had a chance to get my revenge and do something that destroyed the whole “Christmas pop” sub-genre.

And so, while most other students were either paying attention in class or attempting to see through the clothes of another through sheer force of will, one sleep-deprived guy went about crafting a demented slaughter of all things yuletide. That sleep-deprived guy was me.

As had been the case with YOU’RE A NATION, I made the most of what I had to work with in the tiny music room I inhabited at the time. I had eight tracks available on my mixer, two of which were reserved for bouncing the mix down to get it onto CD. So I really only had six tracks to play with, no outboard compression, no EQ (save for what was in the mixer and my guitar effects processor), no mic preamps, and no idea what to do with any of those things even if I did happen to have them.

Halfway through recording the album I figured out how to slap a limiter on my vocal tracks, allowing me to finally scream without grossly overloading everything. That advance was somewhat nullified by some insanely bass-heavy mixes. I was using a boombox in the absence of proper studio monitors, so I couldn’t get a solid idea of what was going on with the low end. And really, I was still in the process of maximizing my minimal gear. I wouldn’t hit my full stride in that department until SHOEBOX PARADISE came along a few months down the road.

While I was working on my piece de tastelessness, a few people came into my life and touched me. Really…we must have had a few handshakes at some point. One such person was Lanny McMoustache, who was a student in my computer science class for all of two days. His real name was Adam. Since he was one of the only guys at walkerville capable of growing any significant facial hair, Goce Ilievski renamed him accordingly.

Goce was another man behind the scenes. He and his friend Jeff got wind of the project I was working on, and the three of us would have laugh-filled brainstorming sessions in computer science class as they egged me on while I wrote my twisted lyrics. Goce ended up going beyond the call of duty and providing me with the sheet music for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I couldn’t read the notation, but it helped me to get a handle on the lyric scheme so I could warp it into Have Yourself a Scary Little Xmas.

After Lanny/Adam left us for greener pastures, Goce spotted him working at McDonald’s and insisted I write a song in his honour. So I rewrote “Frosty the Snowman” as the moving tale of Lanny McMoustache (who “had a moustache the size of Montreal”). Adam Peltier was also part of the MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS cheerleading crew. And all the while, a dude named Adrian Grabarczyk watched from the sidelines, bathing us all in his chronic mouthwash breath and hurling the occasional insult.

I worked with the fervour of decapitated poultry, somehow never getting caught in the act of writing lyrics or scribbling unintelligibly in an attempt to stay awake during class. Work in the “studio” was more scatter-shot. Sometimes I would record a whole batch of songs in one night. Sometimes I wouldn’t record anything for a week or more.

On the evening of November 28, 1999, Santa Claus himself paid me a visit. The resulting interview was both revealing and unsettling, as the great mythical man unsheathed more than just his soul. Who would have guessed his voice was thick with some kind of Russian/Austrian hybrid accent, or that he was a major figure in the world of experimental foreign film? This was one of the most memorable moments for me, even if it ended in hospitalization.

While my recording and songwriting processes were both tightly fused together by now, with improvisation making up most of the connecting tissue, this turned into one of the most structured things I’d ever done at the time. For most songs the template was already there. All I had to do was write my own lyrics, and then spend a few seconds figuring out the basic chord changes.

This means a lot of these songs are premeditated to an extent that my music rarely was at the time. Improvisation ended up seeping into every track in some form, though, and the originals that don’t use any existing christmas songs as a jumping-off point were almost all improvised while recording (Xmas Sex is the one exception to the rule).

A few songs were recorded along the way but deemed sub-par. “It’s That Time” oozed family-friendly love with lyrics comparing a woman’s singing to the penis of a dead fly (what the hell?). Part original, part Dean-Martin-and-Tom-Jones pastiche with the refrain from “What’s New, Pussycat?” recast as something filthy, it built to a climax of psychotic screaming but didn’t quite fit in with the other tracks. Still, I’m a little sad I failed to back it up in any form and lost it forever.

“Let It Grow” had potential as a romantic ballad but lost steam during the bridge section, because I never figured out exactly how “Let It Snow” went during that part. A number of things were also written but never made it to the recording stage.

Goce and Jeff wanted me to finish the album before our two-week Christmas vacation so they could listen to it over the break. I just managed to make the deadline, duly presenting them and Adam (Peltier, not mustachio’d dude) with copies on our last day of school before the break. They listened in the middle of class, laughed, and other students who asked to listen on my DiscMan throughout the day didn’t seem capable of keeping a straight face either. Goce dug the guitar-playing on The Twelve Days of Xmas, though he seemed a little shaken when he learned I didn’t play the instrument in any conventional way.

I expected that would be about the end of it.

Once the Christmas break was over, I returned to a student body that had almost entirely been converted to Johnny West fans, unbeknownst to me. Years later, I learned Goce, Jeff, and Adam (along with his friend David Foot) took it upon themselves to make copies of the album for people they knew, speaking about it in hushed tones. Or maybe it was stifled giggling. Those people in turn spread it around to their friends, and pretty soon a pass-it-on kind of distribution system had been initiated. It became a bizarre hallway sensation.

I first got wind of something strange going on when people I didn’t know and had never even seen before started approaching me. “You’re John West!” a pretty girl I’d never seen before told me, and after I got over the shock of a pretty girl accosting me in the hall and speaking to me for no apparent reason, she went on: “Your Christmas CD is fucking hilarious. The first time I heard it, I was laughing so hard my parents came into my room to see if I was okay because they thought I was dying.”

I should have asked her out for coffee right there. How many times in your life do you get to have a “meet cute” like that, with a girl who’s amused by your perverted Christmas songs? But I wasn’t wise or brave enough to think of a thing like that back then. Curses.

A guy I’d never met before expressed the same sentiment and said, “I listen to that album with my dad all the time.” I laughed and told him he must have a pretty open-minded father.

Another guy thanked me for skewering the Bruce Springsteen version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. “I work at Walmart,” he said, “and they play that song so much, it makes me want to kill myself.”

On it went. A guy named Brock Mackenzie would periodically quote from my interview with santa for the remainder of my high school days. He could sometimes be heard whispering, “I spank my bitches,” in the middle of English class.

I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

It didn’t register at the time, because I didn’t have the whole picture in front of me like I do now, but there was a sudden and significant shift in the way some people treated me. I hadn’t exactly been unpopular or an outcast before, but now people seemed to think I was…well…cool. Even a few guys who’d been kind of assholes, talking shit and trying to push my buttons before, were now treating me like I was this exalted person they were in awe of.

It just seemed weird at the time. Now I can see it had more than a little to do with them hearing my Christmas album.

One funny little story on this subject — there was one guy in grade eleven who stood out as an epic dickbag. He got a kick out of trying to piss me off. Most of the time he would just tell me my music was garbage, for no apparent reason, without any provocation. I would shrug it off and he would get pissed off that he couldn’t get a rise out of me, effectively eating his own shit.

As horrible as my music supposedly was, every single time I brought something new I’d done to class with me he insisted on listening to it. When I brought YOU’RE A NATION to school, he told me the hidden track was the most brilliant thing he’d ever heard, Which was a little surreal. That was pretty much the only nice thing he ever had to say to me.

When this album was making the rounds, he listened to Fuckin’ Around the Xmas Tree, and my song-ending scream was so loud (this was before I discovered the limiter) everyone in class could hear it through the headphones. Our computer science teacher chewed him out something fierce. I almost had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from laughing.

Before long he was telling me his brother had a show on CJAM and suggesting I give him a CD for some possible airplay, talking to me like we were friends. Nothing came of it. This was long before anyone at the station had any interest in me. But the shock was real.

The following year, at least two people were anticipating the sequel to MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS. Jeff and Goce started asking right at the beginning of the school year what the next Christmas album was going to be like. We tossed some ideas around — Jeff came up with the poignant image of a father giving his son a hastily-wrapped tire iron as a Christmas gift and suggested I overhaul “Must Be Santa”.

We had some good laughs. And I did do some serious brainstorming, writing out lists of songs to tackle and some lyrics. My working title for the album was Christmas Under the Covers.

But it wasn’t to be. There were too many other things going on, between Papa Ghostface, the beginning of Guys with Dicks, my solo work, several projected albums that never got a look-in, and ceaseless writing in and out of the classroom.

Jesse himself threw some unexpected newspaper in the proverbial fireplace when he paid me a visit closer to Christmas and suggested we collaborate on a holiday-themed album of our own. Again, the idea fizzled out, in spite of Jeff and Goce’s protests. It had already been done once. I didn’t want to fall into the pattern of diminishing returns.

Today I feel the same way. Every once in a while I think about making another Christmas-themed album, but I doubt I could top this one in terms of inspired insanity.

The lyrics alone are a little outrageous in their demented willingness to offend. In Joy to the Squirrels I experience spontaneous castration, kidnap the Pope, and after a sickening sexual encounter with His Holiness I’m apprehended by the police and end my adventure as an unwilling prison bitch, screaming in agony. Stupid Shit is full of twisted references to David Lee Roth and Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes. In my version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, in place of the grand gifts of the original you’ve got “half a burrito”, “lamb anus tofu”, and “spinal meningitis”, among other atrocities. And it’s not my true love giving those things to me — it’s my sperm bank.

Fuckin’ Around the Xmas Tree offers a rousing invitation to “coat our dicks with Pepto-Bismol”, while ‘Tis the Season (to Be Horny) somehow manages to link defecating penguins, Perry Farrell, and morning masturbation. The title track paints Santa as a deviant who can’t get it up with the ladies. And the Interview with Santa Claus is so depraved and insane, I’m not sure how I improvised it in pieces while managing to make it feel something like a real conversation.

There’s also a surprising amount of musical variety here for an album that should be pretty limited in scope, given the subject matter and a good chunk of the songs being rewrites (or butchery) of existing material.

There’s the complete savagery of holiday guilt-trip commercials in the shape of Xmas Cancer Kids, complete with the cheesiest ’80s electric piano sound I could muster; two drastically different versions of the title track (one a trippy mood piece with a drum loop that sounds like something lifted from a drum & bass song and fed a strong dose of barbiturates, the other uptempo and catchy); gospel piss-takes (Little Virgin Boy, Stupid Shit); chunky rock riff-age (The Twelve Days of Xmas); near-orchestral bombast (Lanny McMoustache); balladry that mixes tenderness and ridiculousness (Have Yourself a Scary Little Xmas); a cappella silliness (Joy to the Squirrels, ‘Tis the Season to Be Horny); and more.

Santa Claus Is Horny for Clowns affectionately pisses on Springsteen’s take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (still one of my favourite Christmas tunes, in spite of Walmart dude’s misgivings), while Xmas Sex moved Jesse to deliver a sermon on the subject of how it could have been a potential hit if I hadn’t penned such filthy lyrics for it. It’s a very piano-heavy album, too, with more emphasis on the black-and-whites than anything else I would do until AN ABSENCE OF SWAY a decade later.

Putting aside the unexpected amount of reach this album had in high school, my real goal from the beginning was to create something I could listen to and laugh at as a substitute for all the saccharine contemporary Christmas music I grew up listening to. I’m proud to say I managed to achieve that. No Christmas for me is complete without pulling it out for at least one listen.

I still laugh when I think about most of the people who heard this stuff at the time it was made probably being stoned out of their minds while listening, wondering what drugs I must have been on when I was recording it. Meanwhile, I was only sleep-deprived and inspired.

TRACKS:

Xmas Smells
Henry the Horny Hamster
Xmas Sex
Little Virgin Boy
Xmas Cancer Kids
Stupid Shit
Joy to the Squirrels (I Shagged the Pope)
Interview with Santa Claus
Santa Claus Is Horny for Clowns
Fuckin’ Around the Xmas Tree
The Twelve Days of Xmas
Merry Fuckin’ Xmas
‘Tis the Season (to Be Horny)
Whorehouse in the Sand
The Night Before Xmas
Dick in a Sock
Lanny McMoustache
Have Yourself a Scary Little Xmas

LISTEN:

Henry the Horny Hamster

Dick in a Sock

Warning — almost all of these songs are politically incorrect and offensive to the point of absurdity. Which was the whole idea, really. Some of the improvised lyrics that don’t appear here are even more out-there.

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