Life & Culture

How We Made the Darkest Christmas Record of All Time

Ze Records’ Michel Esteban reflects on the makings of a masterclass in festive nihilism

  • TextAlex Denney

Michel Esteban has spent years avoiding the prospect of a white Christmas. For decades, the French music producer and Ze Records lynchpin would take himself off “somewhere tropical” at the first sign of festivities; now, he lives in Thailand, where no one thinks about Christmas very much at all. And yet, in recording a festive album with his cult indie label in 1981, Esteban had a hand in producing a little-known Christmas miracle.

Ze were the beating heart of New York’s no-wave scene of the late 1970s and early 80s, putting out a string of fearsome post-punk releases by Suicide, James Chance and Lydia Lunch. The idea of them doing a Christmas record was perhaps best summed up by The Waitresses’ Chris Butler in 2005: “A Christmas album? On a hipster label? With a bunch of junkies on it? Eurotrash? Come on. Never happened... OK, they were not all junkies and Eurotrash. But they were extreme individuals.”

Nonetheless, this ragtag family of junkies, outcasts and assorted fringe figures proved themselves more than up to the task – not least among them The Waitresses, whose evergreen classic Christmas Wrapping remains a seasonal staple to this day. The resulting collection, A Christmas Record, is surely one of the best and strangest records to grace the festive season.

“We did it kind of as a joke,” says Esteban, who has never thrown a Ze Records office Christmas party to this day. “We asked all the people who were recording with Ze at the time to make a Christmas song, and everybody loved the idea. It was like an exercise in style. Especially with the kinds of bands we had – you know, asking the guy from Suicide for a Christmas song! Haha. But they did it.”

Though not a fan of Christmas per se, Esteban admired festive albums by the likes of The Beach Boys and Phil Spector, and wanted a record that could sit proudly with the best of them. Giving his roster carte blanche to tackle the brief however they saw fit, he was rewarded with a tour de force of festive nihilism, albeit one boasting a surprising range of moods and textures.

Earning a spot on Santa’s naughty list are avant-disco queen Cristina’s wonderfully droll tale of seasonal psychosis Things Fall Apart, Suicide’s breathtakingly bleak Hey Lord, and James Chance’s Christmas With Satan, a cheerfully obscene addition to the record in its reissued form from 1982 (Esteban would tweak the tracklisting twice again, in 2004 and 2016). But there’s joy to be found here as well, in Kid Creole’s jubilant Christmas on Riverside Drive and Davitt Sigerson’s shoulda-been drivetime radio hit It’s a Big Country. And of course, there’s Christmas Wrapping, a frantic, hip-hop indebted number whose winning mix of bah-humbug cynicism and sneaky sentiment makes it something of a precursor to Fairytale of New York. It all added up to what one critic called “the first alternative Christmas record”, an assessment Esteban would tend to agree with.

“It’s one of the weirdest, that’s for sure,” he says. “I think we really respected the spirit of the label and what we tried to do, because you have James Chance and Suicide on the one hand doing some very weird stuff, and on the other these very pop songs by The Waitresses and Kid Creole.”

Arriving at the dawn of the Reagan era in 1981, the record came at something of a crossroads for the Christmas pop song. The rock and soul era had been a boon to the Christmas songbook, with the likes of Elvis, James Brown, Chuck Berry and Motown all contributing a glut of festive hits. The emergent hippy culture proved to cool for Yule by and large, but glam rock, harking as it did back to the classic pop songwriting of the 50s, marked a second golden age for festive records. That well of great songs began to run dry around the time of A Christmas Record, perhaps reflecting the breakup of the consensus culture of the postwar era and the advent of a more atomised, consumer-driven society.

“If you listen to the Phil Spector and Beach Boys (Christmas) records you can tell a lot about the period, they’re very traditional records in a way,” says Esteban. “It’s the same thing listening to ours, like ‘OK, this is New York at the beginning of the 80s, and something went weird.’” Taking advantage of that something weird was Ze, founded by Esteban with Michael Zikhla in 1978. New York was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, crime rates were soaring, rent was at rock-bottom. Amid all this chaos, the city’s art scene was flourishing, and Ze was able to channel some of that apocalyptic feeling with its incendiary output.

Indeed, A Christmas Record makes for a timely listen given the political earthquakes of the last two years; tremors which have, in the words of a recent UN report on poverty in America, made the US a “world champion of extreme inequality”. Was (Not Was)’s Christmas Time in Motor City, recorded in Detroit, imagines a “Christmas Eve without the tender words / without a place to call my home”. And when the late, great Alan Vega sings “Hey Lord, I wanna thank you from the bottom of my heart, because it’s that time / Christmas time, Christmas time” on Hey Lord, festive cheer is nowhere to be found: in truth, it’s more like being visited by the ghost of Tiny Tim as a homeless junkie. “(Alan) was free in that he never compromised and was full of new ideas,” says Esteban of the band’s shamanistic frontman, who died in 2016. “I like artists like that, even if they are not the easiest to work with on a daily basis.”

“The Reagan/Thatcher period was quite a disaster from my point of view,” continues Esteban on the mood of simmering unrest that Ze tapped into. “New York was bankrupt but on the other hand it was very creative and a cheap place to live in the downtown part of the city. I also believe it is stimulating to know who is the enemy, so you can have a very childish idea to who you’re fighting against! But now it’s so weird in Europe and especially in America, I’m amazed about what’s happening. It seems so out of control in a way. So, yes, this music is OK for now also.”

But while A Christmas Record frequently goes where other festive hits fear to tread, the album’s legacy rests with a moment of unexpected joy. “I was totally amazed by The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping, because it was a fucking good song and it still is,” says Esteban of the song, lent its all-important veneer of urbane cool by the late Patty Donahue. “We’ve been selling it every year since. This year it appeared in a film called Bad Moms 2, and (in 1998) we had the cover by the Spice Girls, which was pretty funny. The Spice Girls covering one of our songs? Cool.”