Exploiting the Archives Week: Day Forty-Five: "Christmas at Ground Zero" from Polka Party!
Nathan Rabin's Happy Place (or rather, Nathan Rabin) is taking the week between Christmas and New Year's Off to prevent him from going insane (seriously, dude is on the edge! Writing about himself in the third person and everything). So the next week will be Exploiting the Archives week, where we'll be running some of our favorite pieces from the year that was, including this warped Christmas classic from everyone's favorite American pop parodist
As I have recounted here, “Weird Al” Yankovic was never supposed to happen in the first place. The kinky haired kid with the accordion and the combustible energy was supposed to rule the low-stakes world of The Dr. Demento Show’s Funny Five for a few years in his teens before growing up and leaving that weird world behind.
Al certainly wasn’t supposed to last four years, let alone four decades and counting. Indeed, the critical and commercial failure of 1986’s Polka Party!, following the big back-to-back success of In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid, could have spelled the end of the line for the young troubadour. It all could have ended in late 1986 with Al writing an open letter to the industry published in Billboard that read:
Dear industry from which I have taken so, so much, yet given so little
For the past six years, first with a single on Capitol and then as a Rock N’ Roll Recordings album artist, I have wreaked merry havoc across the pop music sphere. I’ve taken songs true artists like The Knack and El Debarge recorded to express something about their understanding of the universe, God and their place in the cosmos, and turned them into silly singles about processed lunch meat, black and white television programs and other assorted nonsense.
There’s only one word for my behavior: weird. And for far too long I’ve reveled in this anti-authoritarian “weird” feeling. It didn’t matter to me that my so-called “harmless” spoofs so destroyed songs and singers in the public imagination that after I spoofed them, they were never able to perform them publicly for fear of being ridiculed, even chased offstage.
After I released “I Love Rocky Road”, for example, Joan Jett couldn’t perform “I Love Rock and Roll” without being inundated with Rocky Road sundaes. She stopped after a few shows, dropped out of show business and now works in a women’s dress shop. All because I had to get my sick jollies re-writing her song so that it’s about ice cream instead of rock and roll. I destroyed a woman’s life in the process.
I am a monster. I see that now.
I have come to understand that to “spoof” a song is to desecrate the Lord’s creation, even if that creation is Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love.” To so cavalierly transform Palmer’s song into one about eating a lot of potatoes is the worst kind of artistic sacrilege.
So from here on out you can say goodbye to “Weird Al” Yankovic and hello to “Regular Al” Yankovic, as I’m now legally known. You can expect some other big changes as well. I will no longer cruelly disparage God’s kingdom through comical mockery. No, each “Regular Al” Yankovic album song will feature nine distressingly sincere love songs and one hymn reverently performed.
No more will I steal the melodies and song structures, nay, the very essence of the artists cursed to be my satirical targets! No, I will now do everything the hard way, the old fashioned way, without resorting to horseplay and shenanigans and comical business with an accordion and polkas and similar such gaudy foolishness!
So look for “Regular Al” Yankovic’s yearly album of tender ballads and devotionals, available exclusively at crafting fairs!
“Regular Al” Yankovic
But Al didn’t go out like that. Polka Party! proved a bump in the road, not an ending. But Polka Party!, which was released during the waning days of the Cold War, but at the height of a ten-year Nathan Rabin’s nuclear paranoia, didn’t just close with an ending, it closed with the ending: a nuclear apocalypse. That’s the second nuclear apocalypse of the album, if you’re counting, after “Just One of Those Days.”
The “Man” wanted a Christmas song from Al. They imposed on Al like he was some manner of songwriting/dancing monkey, so, with the same punky, irreverent spirit that led him to answer their request for a Cyndi Lauper parody with the silently passive-aggressive-rage-filled “Girls Just Want To Have Lunch”, he answered their Christmas wishes with an evisceratingly dark exploration of mankind’s horrific capacity for total self-negation that just happened to sound like a holly, jolly Christmas perennial from Phil Spector’s beloved Christmas album.
“Christmas At Ground Zero” was already a bracingly dark title for a holiday jingle even before the attacks of 9/11 made ‘Ground Zero’ synonymous with a very specific American trauma as opposed to the much cheerier earlier association it had with nuclear attacks. It’s an audacious sick joke of an album closer that would be almost unbearably grim and depressing if it weren’t so incongruously chipper musically.
“Christmas At Ground Zero” is so catchy that I would totally go out with a bunch of fellow carolers and perform it around Christmastime, but only if it were the only Christmas song we performed, and none of the lesser, but slightly better known ones.
Al, producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Derringer and Al’s band don’t just give the song a sound: they give it a scrappy but enormously effective Wall of Sound. The ode to Yuletide atomic armageddon has a big lush, super-produced sound topped off with the ghoulish and darkly funny flourish of an air raid siren.
Al’s apocalyptic elf delivers news of nuclear apocalypse with the same saccharine cheer he delivers lines about sleigh bells ringing and carolers singing. Seldom have phrases like “It’s the end of all humanity”, “time to face your final destiny” and “we’re gonna get nuked” been sung with such inappropriate yet strangely infectious Christmastime cheer.
There’s a certain deranged majesty to “Christmas At Ground Zero.” Just as “Good Enough For Now” is a credible country song, and not just Al and his band’s version of one, “Christmas At Ground Zero” is a bona fide Christmas song, with an almost sadistically catchy (if familiar) melody that lodges itself into the brain in part because it sounds so much like so many Christmas staples. It has that instant-vintage kind of feel, like it was always just kind of around, but Al just had to capture and record it.
Al made his proper directorial debut with the “Christmas at Ground Zero” video, a stock footage pastiche of old clips involving nuclear apocalypse and Christmas, including a clip of Ronald Reagan in his TV host days that closes with a shot of Al signing in a Christmas mood, surrounded by carolers with gas masks.
“Christmas At Ground Zero” isn’t entirely bleak, merely overwhelmingly and perversely so. It does at least allow for the possibility that humanity will at least survive long enough for some “new mutations on New Year’s Day.”
That Al! Such an optimist, even on a song that welcomes the apocalypse with the same good cheer Christmas songs generally reserve for Ol’ Saint Nick’s yearly visit. Yep, in a very silly alternately timeline, “Christmas At Ground Zero” and Polka Party! could have spelled the end for “Weird Al” Yankovic and brought about the strange counter-existence of “Regular Al” Yankovic. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Polka Party! ends on a big, bold, confident note but it has a whole lot more to recommend it other than a singularly ballsy and non-commercial Christmas jingle.
Nevertheless, in the wake of Polka Party!’s failure, Al knew that he could do better. He could, and would, do Even Worse.
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