There’s a Christmas radio station here in Chicago, and most of the songs they play I can’t listen to anymore because I’ve heard them over and over again. But I’ll never, ever get tired of hearing Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” And that was the song I missed on the radio today. So I wanted to make up for it by writing a few words about it here.
If you weren’t alive in 1984-1985, you can’t really appreciate how huge Springsteen was back then. Born in the USA was all over the airwaves and MTV. After six top ten singles had been released from the album, by late 1985 it seemed to be winding down a bit. And that’s when the record label went to the last song on the album, “My Hometown,” and released it as a single.
But it was the B side of that single that was really significant. In the iTunes world we’re living now, I wonder if B sides have much meaning anymore. If you heard a song on the radio in the 1970s and 1980s, and wanted to hear the song whenever you wanted, you had three options: listen to the radio in the hopes they’d play the song, buy the album that had the song on it, or buy the 45 rpm single. Singles were cheaper, but in order to get the song you wanted, there was usually another, almost throwaway song on the back side. The song you wanted to hear was the A side, and the other song–the afterthought, really–was the B side.
But “My Hometown” was different. Since it was being released at the end of the year, the record label included a version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It was perfect for that time of year, and the title alone made me want to give it a listen. It was a live version of the song, and it became clear to me that live performance was Springsteen’s strong suit. I don’t think a studio version of the song would have been nearly as good as the version that was presented as the B side.
The highlight of the song for me is the saxophone part played by Clarence Clemons. It lasts less than half a minute, but it’s as lively and joyous as anything I’ve ever heard on a record, before or since. It helps build the song to a rousing finish, which I caught the tail end of on the radio today. I realized, in a way I hadn’t before, that the song–which was recorded back in 1975–was a Christmas gift to me and everyone else.
I don’t think that this version of the song would appear on radio stations as often as it does at this time of year, if it hadn’t been released to the public in the way that it was. Nearly four decades after the song was recorded, it still sounds as great as it ever did. And while the Big Man won’t be around to play this one again live, we can all be happy that we’re able to hear it again this year, and next year, and every year after that. Ho Ho Ho, indeed.