The Genius of… The Ventures’ Christmas Album
The instrumental surf icons jumped on the 60s festive album fad, but the result is a surprising and extremely weird mashup that’s more than just a beachside Christmas…
The Ventures Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images )
By and large, Christmas albums have too many words and not enough surf guitar, wouldn’t you agree? Well if you do, and you haven’t heard The Ventures Christmas Album then reader, your whole festive world is about to change forever, because trust me when I tell you that The Ventures Christmas Album isn’t merely a leftfield relic from a very specific period in popular music that hasn’t really stood the test of time…
Okay it is all of that, but so much more besides. On the quiet, The Ventures Christmas Album might be one of the most under-appreciated gems from a golden age of festive pop albums.
The Ventures remain the most successful instrumental band of all time, with over 100 million records sold, but the mid 60s was a weird time for the band. Having broken through with their seminal cover of Walk Don’t Run, which reached No 2 in the Billboard charts in 1960, the Ventures struggled to replicate that magic over the coming years, failing to score another top 10 hit until 1964.
Even that was only with the reheated microwave meal that was Walk Don’t Run ’64 – notable for bassist Bob Bogle playing the iconic lead part, with original lead guitarist Nokie Edwards swapping to bass, and a dreadful organ melody addition – which reached No 8. After that the band would have to wait until 1968 for their final bona fide hit – a cover of the theme from hit TV show Hawaii Five-0, which reached No 4 in the US charts.
Despite the band’s meagre single success, they continued to enjoy marginal chart success on the album front throughout the 60s, no doubt helped by their ridiculous efficiency – the band released a whopping 19 albums between 1960 and 1965. Only two of those albums would crack the top of them, and one of them was, you guessed it, The Ventures Christmas Album.
Christmas albums were all the rage in the 60s – between 1960 and 1965 we were blessed with undeniable festive classics from The Beach Boys, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and verified horrible bastard Phil Spector. Indeed, what’s truly remarkable is that by charting at No 8 in 1965, The Ventures Christmas Album actually sold more records than the uncomfortably undeniable greatest Christmas album of all time, the aforementioned A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector. It was also hot on the heels of that other 60s Christmas pop classic, The Beach Boys Christmas Album at No 6.
But chart performance has very little to do with genius, and had The Ventures Christmas Album sunk without a trace in 1965 it would still hold a special place in the history of Christmas guitar music because it is so very inventive and so very weird along with it.
Just look at the album cover – with a trio of The Ventures’ signature Mosrite guitars poking through the middle of a festive wreath, you know you’re in for a good time. Though from the tracklisting – a mix of classics and a smattering of originals with blandly festive names (‘Snow Flakes’ and ‘Scrooge’? Yawn) – you might be expecting a by the numbers surf-inflected Christmas meh with all the vim of an over-cooked turkey.
First track Sleigh Ride instantly disabuses you of that notion – opening with a thunderous drum fill followed by, hang on, those descending chords sound familiar… waitaminute is this Walk Don’t Run? Yes! But also no. No sooner have you gone to check that you’ve got the right record playing, those iconic chords burst into a gloriously surfy take on that iconic Leroy Anderson melody.
And that friends, is the underappreciated genius of The Ventures Christmas Album – it’s not just a rote surfi-fication of some standard festive tunes, it’s also a mad experiment to mash together some of the most recognisable riffs and melodies of the period with those Christmas songs to create something absolutely mad, but weirdly compelling.
Don’t believe me? Check out Jingle Bell Rock, which somehow seagues from the descending riff of Johnny Rivers’ Memphis, Tennessee straight into the melody, with obligatory sleigh bells belting out a 4/4 shuffle the whole time. And what if I was to tell you that Wooly Bully’s proto-skank intro would meld seamlessly into Santa Clause Is Coming To Town?
That’s not even the weirdest one – that’s probably the bonkers Tequila/Frosty The Snowman mashup… actually, no wait… it’s definitely the bit where Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer has the intro riff from The Beatles’ I Feel Fine peppered throughout. No really. And if we’re going for straight-up non-mashup weird, it’s the genuinely unsettling use of talkbox on Silver Bells – you have been warned.
As Rolling Stone declared of The Ventures Christmas Album when including it at no 12 on their list of greatest Christmas albums ever, “the stylistic invention and off-handed majesty never let up” and that is what makes this album such a fun and surprising gem. The sheer audacity to even attempt to fuse seemingly incompatible songs while also firing it through the prism of the most un-festive genre imaginable at the time is reason alone to check this album out – the fact that you’ll end up having a thoroughly good time doing so is just a bonus.
Standout guitar moment: Sleigh Ride