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Christmas Bring My Check This Year

Some holiday songs come and go; others earn huge royalties for years on end. Somewhere in the middle is Chris Butler

by Stephen Leon on December 18, 2013


The Waitresses

On a hot day in August 1981, Chris Butler sat in a New York City cab and scratched out lyrics to a new song he and his bandmates were about to record. The band’s indie label, ZE Records, had asked all of the artists in its stable to contribute a song each to a Christmas compilation. Butler, then a self-described “terrible Scrooge” (so much so, he says, “that I was once given a T-shirt that read, ‘Jump, George Bailey, Jump’ ”), cobbled together a few musical ideas he’d been saving “for a rainy day” and wrote lyrics that reflected his own distaste for the holiday season, except for one thing—the song had a happy ending.

Now an annual staple of holiday-season playlists, the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” tells the story of a busy young single woman who has vowed to steer clear of all holiday-related activities, turning down party invites and preparing Christmas dinner for one in her apartment. Just one problem: She forgot to buy cranberries, and so did the guy she’d been trying to get together with all year, only to be foiled by a string of mishaps. They both show up at the same all-night grocery, and, well, a happy holiday hit is born.

Sung and semi-rapped by Waitresses lead singer Patty Donahue, “Christmas Wrapping” became something of a hit that first season. Butler considered the song a throwaway at the time; for one thing, he was in another working band, Tin Huey, and as far as the Waitresses were concerned, he and Donahue were more focused on promoting their minor hit “I Know What Boys Like.” Around Thanksgiving, the Waitresses were getting ready to play a club show in Rochester when Butler called his girlfriend, who said, “You’re all over the radio.” “I thought she meant that ‘Boys Like’ had finally broken through,” he says, “but she said no, it was the Christmas song. We re-learned it at soundcheck and it stayed in the repertoire.”

It also stayed in the canon of Christmastime music, though it didn’t exactly take off at first. “The song kind of languished for 10 years or so after it was recorded, Butler recalls. “There were a reasonable amount of plays, but no big deal. Then it started getting into Top 10 Favorite Christmas Songs lists on radio stations, which was very flattering. And much to my surprise, the song became more popular in the U.K., which is why the Spice Girls covered it, I guess.”

As “Christmas Wrapping” gathered momentum, the radio plays became more regular and it began showing up in holiday compilations and on TV shows. As each new season brought the song back into consciousness, fresh reviews reflected its offbeat charm; one called it “fizzing, funky dance-around-the-Christmas-tree music for Brooklyn hipsters.” And for Butler, the song had another kind of happy ending: an annual royalty check he refers to as his “Christmas bonus.”

In an interview about a decade ago, Butler said that some years the “bonus” is about a schoolteacher’s annual salary, other years just enough to buy a used Toyota. Have the royalties grown since then? “I would say things have now hit the level of an assistant principal’s salary and/or a nice mid-level Honda with a few modest accessories,” he says.

If “Christmas Wrapping” is a modest, second-tier moneymaker in the realm of popular songs in the Christmas canon, the fact that it is firmly in the canon itself is significant and potentially very lucrative, as artists like Mariah Carey, George Michael, Shane MacGowan and Noddy Holder well know.

In 1973, a relatively obscure Canadian musician and producer named Terry Jacks was producing a single for the Beach Boys, an adaptation of a French-language song by Jacques Brel translated into English by Rod McKuen. When the Beach Boys shelved the project, Jacks returned to Vancouver and decided to record it himself. “Seasons in the Sun” was released that December, and soon became a worldwide phenomenon; it is said to be one of the fewer that 40 singles ever to have sold more than 10 million or more physical copies worldwide. Royalties from that single alone reportedly earned Jacks a comfortable living thereafter.

(While clearly popular, “Seasons,” in which a dying narrator says bittersweet goodbyes to friends and family, also has been derided for being “sappy”; what many people may not know is that Jacks sanitized the lyrics. Brel’s original composition, “Le Moribond,” contains a more complex adult theme in which the protagonist bids farewell to his wife and best friend, but also reminds them that he had to endure their affair.)

Meanwhile, also in 1973, the English rock band Slade wrote and recorded a song called “Merry Xmas Everybody,” which debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. charts when it was released in December. It went on to become the most popular U.K. Christmas song of all time, returning year after year in nightclubs, on radio playlists and holiday compilations, and in TV shows. One difference between “Merry Xmas Everybody” and “Seasons in the Sun” is that the latter, like any other non-holiday pop hit, is off the calendar after its initial run and left to chance in terms of ongoing (or recurring) popularity. “Merry Xmas” is so entrenched in the British holiday canon that some years, it actually re-enters the U.K. charts. (This is more common with Christmas songs nowadays since Billboard started counting downloads.)

Slade frontman Noddy Holder has referred to the song as his “pension scheme,” and what a pension at that: Reports on what the song will earn its composers this year alone range from $1 to $1.5 million. Not too far behind in the $500,000-plus club, according to the same reports, are Mariah Carey (“All I Want for Christmas Is You,” 1994); the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (“Fairytale of New York,” 1987); and Wham! (“Last Christmas,” 1984).

Now before you start joking about the Pogues’ McGowan being wealthy enough by now to pay someone to fix his famously rotten teeth, apparently he has been looking this year for a dentist-magician to do just that.

Both Kirsty MacColl and the Waitresses’ Patty Donahue are deceased, but their royalty shares continue to pass on to their respective estates.

“It would have made all the sense in the world for us to do one, and we just didn’t. We never went and did a recorded Christmas song,” says Paul Rapp, a local intellectual-property lawyer, Metroland contributing writer and drummer for Albany’s legendary indie band Blotto.

Known for novelty songs like “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard,” Blotto could be seen on early MTV and were contemporary with new-wave bands like the Waitresses. Their wry humor and off-kilter style might have translated into a novelty Christmas song for the ages—or then again, maybe not. Because, as everyone from Lady Gaga to Brad Paisley to Coldplay to Justin Bieber to Stephen Colbert seems to be finding out, recording a Christmas song is easy, but getting that song into the canon is not.

As Chris Klimek points out in his recent Slate article, titled “All I Want for Christmas Is a New Christmas Song,” no recording since Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has broken into that elite group of heavy-rotation holiday hits—and that song came out 19 years ago.

Now it can take time (or a key movie placement) for a holiday song to bubble up to critical mass, and several artists, including Kelly Clarkson, the Killers and Ariana Grande, are doing well on this year’s Billboard digital charts. But like the industry itself, consumers’ musical tastes are fickle, and most songs just don’t have that je ne sais quoi that makes a classic a classic.

Sometimes artists know they’re on to something special. As Irving Berlin famously told his secretary upon composing “White Christmas” (the Bing Crosby version of which is the best-selling single of all time), “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”

But for every Irving Berlin, there’s a Chris Butler, who left the studio that August day not knowing if he would ever hear “Christmas Wrapping” on the radio. Still a working musician and producer, Butler has remained a relatively obscure figure in American music, his projects generally flying under mainstream radar. He lives in a loft studio in Hoboken, N.J., and plays drums in a surf band called purplE k’niF. He is collaborating with an old bandmate on a recording project of songs about obscure national holidays, like Penguin Appreciation Day and National Salami Day.

And he is “looking for a home” for a completed CD/audio play called Easy Life, “which is songs plus narration loosely about what my life was like in Kent on Thursday, April 30, 1970—the day before the weekend that ended with the May 4 shootings.” Butler was a student at Kent State University and among the crowd that was fired on that day by the National Guard.

(As if to round out an already eccentric life, Butler owns the Ohio boyhood home of Jeffrey Dahmer, where he committed his first murder. Butler bought the house some years ago, impressed with its style and big, wooded lot. He couldn’t understand why the asking price was so low.)

Meanwhile, Butler is enjoying the modest fruits of his “labor” of 32 years ago—emphasis on “modest.”

“There may be an explosion of different mediums for listening to music,” he points out, “but all the new services pay a nanofraction of what record sales used to generate. So no bragging or limousine life here. Grateful that it earns enough to keep the wolf away.”

And enough to drive away his inner Grinch?

“I never looked too fondly at that time of year,” Butler says of his younger self, “which is evident in the song since there’s this corny-sarcastic “spirit of Christmas” thing that makes everything right in the end. Of course, all Scrooges get their comeuppance, and over the years the song has blindsided grumpy old me over and over again. So now I am the jolliest of elves.”