Tied with Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” as my favorite religious rock song by an otherwise non-religious rock band is The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”, a track which takes much of its lyrics directly from the King James. It’s right up there with The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” as one of the greatest Christmas rock songs of all time, about as close to a sacred modern carol as one could find.
The google-challenged Band – in this writer’s opinion the greatest performing unit the rock world has ever produced (see “Rock of Ages”) – included the song on their final studio record, Islands, and it was the out-and-0ut highlight of a swansong that was as much a contractual obligation as a cohesive work of art. Not only was “Christmas Must Be Tonight” an unexpected shot of religious devotion, a topic they had only ever alluded to in passing, it was proof that if substance abuse and ego hadn’t sidelined the group at the end of the 70s, long may they (might) have run. Oddly enough, “Christmas Must Be Tonight” is the only Band song that lead guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson – the world’s only half-Jewish, half-Mohawk Canadian rock star – ever re-recorded after he left the group. And he did so twice – once for the soundtrack of Bill Murray’s Scrooged! Robertson’s unrivaled storytelling gifts are on full display here, sadly the last time he would use them for over a decade (some might say that his assessment of having accomplished all he, or anyone, could in the arena was a wise one). Of course, his subsequent Scorsese soundtrack work probably drew from the same wells. Enjoy:
One more bit of trivia: The Band’s multi-instrumentalist savant Garth Hudson is the only musician I know of to have made the successful transition from Anglican organist to rock star. He’s quoted as saying:
“The Anglican church has the best musical traditions of any church that I know of. It’s the old voice leading that gives it the countermelodies and adds all those classical devices which are not right out there, but which add a little texture.”
In that spirit, King Harvest Must Surely Come:
P.S. Too good not to mention. Post-Islands (and Last Waltz), Robertson did indeed take an extended break from songwriting. In fact, from 1978 to 1987, only one new original composition would see the light of day, the little-heard and now tragically unavailable “Between Trains” off of the King of Comedy soundtrack. But man oh man did it not disappoint! He even got Richard Manual to sing back up and Garth Hudson to provide keys. As much as I enjoyed the non-Robertson 90s reunion albums, it represents last gasp of true Band magi – you might even call it an epitaph, considering how much it deals with death. Thank God for Youtube: