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18th of January 2018

Entertainment



An Appreciation of the Bizarre 1980 Star Wars Christmas Album

One of the great virtues of Star Wars as a piece of science fiction is how it de-centers the viewer. Our planet and our history mean nothing in that galaxy far, far away. Earth is nowhere to be found, everything’s happening a long time ago, and though many of our heroes are humans, they don’t seem to represent a majority of the population. Thus disoriented, one can lose oneself in this alien mythos: We’re not just escaping from our lives, we’re escaping from our entire universe. To watch a Star Wars flick is to free-fall into a world where nothing is totally familiar.

Now imagine it’s Christmas Day, 1980, and you’ve just received Christmas in the Stars, the Star Wars Christmas album, from your mom. You’re still riding high from seeing The Empire Strikes Back 18 times after it came out in May and you have every other piece of Star Wars memorabilia out there, so you’re gleeful at the completion of your collection. You know it was produced by Tony Bongiovi and Meco Monardo, the guys who made that bangin’ disco cover of the Star Wars theme a few years back, so you’re amped up to jam. You get ready to transport yourself to your favorite distant landscape.

A little over 33 minutes later, you’re done, and you’re horrified. Somehow, in defiance of all that is holy, the album connected Star Wars characters closely to our mundane Earth. They weren’t talking about some Star Wars equivalent of Christmas, like the Wookiee Life Day you saw in 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special. The album was about real, legit Santa Claus Christmas. It featured C-3P0 improbably crooning about Japan and Magna Carta, it had a whole track premised on the existence of our 365-day solar calendar, and Jesus was implied to exist alongside the Force. What’s more, it was resolutely and relentlessly uncool. It was all nonsense about the magic of Yuletide and love and bells and — on two occasions! — the difficulty of finding a gift for a Wookiee when he already owns a comb. It has ruined your holiday. You wish Christmas in the Stars could be forever erased from your life and everyone else’s.

That’s been the general response to the album since its release 37 years ago. But while it’s easy to snipe at the album, a more mature response is to bask in the purity of its insanity and the innovation of its abomination. It doesn’t settle for merely being cheesy or useless — it’s charmingly catchy and features lyrics that are delightful for a Star Wars fanatic because they’re so utterly perverse. In our current era, when the franchise’s brand has become sacrosanct, it’s a thrill to hear all the rules get broken.

We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s stuff to enjoy about Christmas in the Stars, given the high quality of the talent behind it. It’s best to walk into the album knowing nothing about the people and story behind it, but after you’re done listening, check out this amazing oral history of the album that Andrea Warner did for CBC Music a couple of years ago. The short version: After the success of the aforementioned Star Wars disco remix, Bongiovi (who had also produced the Ramones, Talking Heads, and other sonic luminaries) and Monardo discussed the idea of doing a Christmas album and George Lucas gave them the green light. They recruited songwriter Maury Yeston (who would later compose the Broadway musicals Nine and Titanic), and he quickly penned a bunch of the tracks. They only ended up using one cast member, C-3P0 actor Anthony Daniels, who only had a weekend to record and didn’t know how to sing. They laid down additional vocals from Bongiovi’s cousin, John Bongiovi, a.k.a. Jon Bon Jovi, in his first professional recording (he also wrote one of the better songs, “The Odds Against Christmas”). It was rushed to press and sold well, but the record company went out of business and it never went to a second printing. A rare novelty curio was born.

To this day, it remains unlike anything else in the Star Wars corpus. From the very first pair of sentences uttered on the album, one becomes aware that we’re not in Corellia anymore. As bells jingle, Threepio shouts, “Oh, my stars, I’ve never been so busy before! It seems Christmas arrives sooner each year!” This, as we’ve said, oddly establishes that Christmas exists in the Star Wars cosmology — a holiday with “Christ” in its very name, raising all sorts of questions about the eternal and universe-spanning nature of the Son of God.

That first song, “Christmas in the Stars,” sets up the core conceit of the album, which is that various droids, including Threepio and Artoo, are building toys to give to all the little girls and boys of the Galaxy. It’s musically unremarkable and is mainly notable for a strange interlude in which Chewbacca finds himself under the mistletoe near R5-D4 and kisses it. “Only a Wookiee would kiss a droid for Christmas,” another robot calls out. Yes, we all know that old Wookiee stereotype: They sure do love making out with metal.

The song concludes with Artoo bleeping and blooping about how he doesn’t know what the instrument that’s been playing throughout the song is. Threepio is astonished that his little dustbin companion doesn’t know what bells are. It should be noted that the Artoo of Christmas in the Stars is a complete moron. Later, in a song called “Sleigh Ride,” we learn that he doesn’t know what singing is. But such astonishing idiocy opens up lyrical opportunities for Threepio to lay out the basics of music, as is true on the second track, “Bells, Bells, Bells.” In what the Germans call sprechgesang, Threepio rhythmically speaks such brilliant lines as, “Bells, bells, bells / the thing they do is ring” and has a bit about how bells can be “chiming what the hour is now / or they’ll lead you to a cow.”

The most alarming bits of the song come up soon after. There’s Threepio’s claim that bells are “speaking languages with ease / In a breeze, they’re Japanese,” which is followed by a shift to an Eastern tonic scale. Artoo beeps. “You know what Japanese are?” Threepio asks his buddy, to which Artoo replies with a whine that sounds somewhat like him saying, Hooooo-boy, do I! So wait — the droids of Star Wars know about Japan? Is it some kind of Space Japan? And how do we account for a few unnervingly Earthly lines in the next song, “The Odds Against Christmas,” in which Threepio remarks that “Christmas could have so easily been the day they invented the wheel / or the day bad King John was so put-upon that the Magna Carta was sealed / They could have discovered America on December the 25th”? Good lord, how are such crossovers between their universe and ours possible? The mind boggles at the audacity.

The jaunty “The Odds Against Christmas,” it should be said, has what is possibly the most delightful concept of any song on the album. The reason Threepio is talking about things that could have happened on Christmas, but didn’t, is because he’s being his classically worried self and pointing out the odds, just as he did so relentlessly in The Empire Strikes Back. He cedes the floor to an anonymous human character, who sings the key recurring line: “The odds against Christmas being Christmas / are three-hundred-and-sixty-five to one / Christmas, you see, could have easily / never, ever begun.” As if that weren’t strange enough, the song goes on to further imply the existence of Intergalactic Jesus, but only in the cryptic statement, “Whole galaxies and distant worlds would change places with any of you / because you have a day when love came to stay / though it nearly didn’t come true.” This is the one song on Christmas in the Stars that you could see being performed at your local church youth group, which is a remarkable achievement for a piece of Star Wars media.

I could go on about every damn song on this album, but it’s best consumed on one’s own unmediated terms, if for no other reason than that you deserve proof of its actual existence. You’ll find an array of highlights. There’s the single released from the album, “What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)?” — the title, alone, is worth the price of admission, but you also get the bizarre assertion that the gift you should give is “love and understanding / good will to men / Wrap it all up in bright-colored ribbon / and give it to him all over again.” (Contradictorily, a later song says the ideal gift for a comb-possessing Wookiee is … a brush.) There’s “Sleigh Ride,” in which everyone encourages Artoo to learn to sing by telling him, “Just get your circuits buzzin’ / a mere half-dozen will do.” There’s the Bon Jovi–sung “R2-D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which seems to suggest that Artoo will come visit the children of the Galaxy by appearing in their fireplaces (“Our chim-uh-nee’s big and round / so you can come right down”).

Speaking of which, we have to talk about the album’s climax, in which we endure not one, but two songs about the Star Wars version of Santa. The first ditty is “A Christmas Sighting (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas),” in which Threepio poetically recounts a time he saw “S. Claus” at some unspecified domicile. The listener is left wondering why he keeps talking about “S.” and not “Santa,” and they get their answer in the epic concluding track, “The Meaning of Christmas.” Over the course of a marathon eight minutes and nine seconds, youthful S. Claus shows up and informs everyone that he’s Santa’s son, helping out because “there are far too many children in the galaxies for one Claus to handle.”

But the real reason S. Claus is there isn’t to lay out the reason for his existence, but rather to justify slave labor. The droids ask him whether they’ll get toys as a reward for making all the goodies for the biological lifeforms, and Claus responds, “Not exactly. But even though you don’t know it, every time you build a toy, you’ve already been given a gift.” The gift, of course, is the knowledge that these uncompensated toilers have made someone else’s life more magical. After that reasoning is sung out, the track crescendos into an extended coda about how great Christmas is, and about how, maybe, just maybe, someday, every day will be like Christmas: a time for joy, cheer, and “special feelings lasting all the year.” When the final few seconds blissfully arrive, Threepio yells, “Merry Christmas, everyone! And may the Force be with you, always!”

By that point, it’s almost jarring to hear an actual line from Star Wars said on this strange cultural document, because one may have forgotten that it had anything to do with Star Wars, in the first place. But that’s why Christmas in the Stars is such a fascinating object. It reminds us that the franchise has always found magic in mixing the familiar with the fantastical. All the main characters in the film series mix a stilted, otherworldly English interspersed with familiar pieces of vernacular slang. The clothing ranges from outlandish robes and headdresses to casual vests and slacks. There are wild aliens, yes, but also pretty standard-issue humans. Christmas in the Stars just tilts a little too far in the wrong direction. In doing so, it shows us, by contrast, just how masterfully Lucas and his collaborators mixed our world and a distant galaxy back in the day. Maybe rediscovering what makes for a good Star Wars product was the true meaning of Christmas, all along.

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