What can you get a Wookiee for Christmas when he already owns a comb? No, not a hairbrush. And if you don’t immediately get what I’m talking about, you’re probably not as much of a Star Wars trivia expert as you think.
Actually, despite the festiveness of the season, I’m perturbed. I’ve heard “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” at least four or five times on the radio already, but not once have I heard “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And what about “The Odds Against Christmas?” Those, along with “What Can You Get a Wookiee…” are three of the nine tunes on Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album, which originally came out as an LP (remember vinyl records?) in 1980 from RSO Records — and fairly quickly went out of print.
I confess. I really love this album; many of the songs have been rumbling around my brain for more than 30 years. I realize that I’m in the minority, but I think a lot of people who trash this tuneful mélange have never even heard it. I also think that folks somehow get it mixed up with the truly unbearable Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired once on CBS-TV in November 1978 (and in Canada and Australia) and inflicted such psychic harm on the public that it was forever banned from the airwaves and relegated to poorly copied bootleg VHS tapes that were later transferred to even poorer quality DVDs.
Do you listen to the lyrics of most Christmas songs? “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose” pales in comparison to such immortal lines as “Everyone will have a cookie, I bought extra for the Wookiee.” And this album has an amazing pedigree. Producer Meco Monardo, best known for his disco/pop translations of classic science fiction themes (Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk), hoped that this would be the first in a series of annual Star Wars Christmas albums.
Further, most of the original songs were written by Maury Yeston, a Yale University music professor, who went on to become a major Broadway force, winning Tony awards for the musicals Nine and Titanic.
The album is also notable for being the recorded singing debut of none other than an 18-year-old Jon Bon Jovi (credited as John Bongiovi), who fronts a high school chorus on “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Jon’s cousin Tony ran the Power Station recording studio in New York and co-produced the album. The most recognizable voice is that of C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels. Lucasfilm’s Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt provides the sound effects of R2-D2 and Chewbacca.
In a 2005 interview with Shane Turgeon that ran on TheForce.net, Meco said that the album came about after he wrote, and later talked to George Lucas who jokingly told him about what he could and couldn’t do on the album, including “the one thing you must not do is kiss the Wookiee.” On one of the recording days, Lucasfilm sent a surprise guest: Darth Vader, and Meco has the photos to prove it.
But despite a glorious painted cover by concept and production artist Ralph McQuarrie, and a series of songs mostly clever and warm, it didn’t top the charts. About 150,000 copies were pressed (along with an unknown number of cassette tapes), and it peaked at 61 on the Billboard 200 chart for albums. There was also a 45 RPM single released with a photo of Chewie on the sleeve since it featured “What Can You Get a Wookiee…” backed with “R2-D2 We Wish You….” It reached 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
When I started writing Star Wars books in the early 1990s, I kept bugging director of publishing Lucy Wilson, who was also in charge of all Star Wars music, to get some company to release the album on CD. She always looked at me like I was nuts. “Did anybody even like that record?” she once asked me. I sang a few verses for her but stopped when she started looking ill.
I tried again a few years later by reminding Lucy that the album had a feel-good story-line. Its milieu is a droid factory where the robots make toys year ’round for one “S. Claus.” But they don’t quite know what to make of Christmas until the Laurel and Hardy of droids — C-3PO and R2-D2 — help explain it all. In the process, R2 learns how to sing, or rather, whistle to the Christmas chestnut “Sleigh Ride.”
After the worker droids go down their list and decide on a scarf for Luke Skywalker, perfume for Princess Leia and earmuffs for Han Solo, C-3PO tells them about their own Christmas gift: The happiness their toys bring to children around the galaxy. As the golden robot exclaims at the end, “Merry Christmas, everyone. And may the Force be with you…always.
Then in the mid-1990s Lucy told me that Lucasfilm had been approached by Rhino Records about a CD release. She seemed somewhat surprised, but since I didn’t lord it over her, she told me that Rhino was looking for someone to write the liner notes. Was I interested? Duh! The CD was released in plenty of time for the 1996 holiday season, but even with a little advertising and publicity, it still went looking for a larger audience.
Of course, having a critic or two trash the album probably didn’t help. One at AllMusic.com wrote: “Because of its general meaninglessness and obscure commentaries on the holiday, this could be the worst Star Wars related album on the market. To those who enjoy bad music on a camp level, this album is priceless.” Not only that: “And Steve Sansweet’s liner notes are just as bad, comparing the songwriting on the album to the late, great Spike Jones.” What a Scrooge! Anyway, that’s not what I wrote.
I guess you’re just going to have to listen for yourselves. There is a problem though. On iTunes, the only track available for download is “R2-D2 We Wish You….” So you might have to try eBay where sales in the last few months have ranged from 99 cents to about $50. Happy shopping!
Steve Sansweet, head of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm for 15 years and now Fan Relations Adviser, is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and http://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan