Dubbed a "sleighbell-free zone" by singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, last year's Quality Street is a terrific collection of tunes that succeeds simply because it's so understated. Best known for hits like "Cruel to Be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Lowe is one of rock's great, unheralded songwriters. He initially didn't like the idea of doing a Christmas album, but he eventually warmed up to it. His unique approach ultimately distinguishes the album from the rest of the dreck you hear each Christmas.
"Most people do the same 12 songs when they do these records," he says. "I wanted to stay away from that to do some that people don't hear all the time. But I didn't want it to be too artsy fartsy either. You don't want to miss the spirit. They don't call it Christmas for nothing. You do get carried away. I found myself with a couple of good ideas for songs. I thought that would show people that I was taking it seriously."
For the current tour, dedicated to the songs on Quality Street, the surf rock act Los Straitjackets serves as Lowe's backing band, and they put their own spin on the tunes. Lowe phoned us from his London home to take us through the disc, track by track.
"Children Go Where I Send Thee"
I have only heard it done by wholesome folk groups. It's what they used to call a Negro spiritual. They don't call it that anymore. A lot of white folks acts used to do it. We revved it up a bit and put some rockabilly in it. I think it came out really, really well.
"Christmas Can't Be Far Away"
That's just a good song. It's written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant who wrote a lot of songs for the Everly Brothers.
"Christmas at the Airport"
It's about a bloke who's trapped in the airport over Christmas. About two days after this idea [for a Christmas album] was put to me, I found myself in the Zurich airport nursing a slight hangover. The idea came to me and I had written it in my head by the time we landed at Heathrow. Somebody mentioned to me last year when I was doing promotion, someone pointed out that the character in the song sounds like he's quite pleased by being locked in the airport. I think there's some truth in that. I wasn't aware of it at the time.
"Old Toy Trains"
It's a song by Roger Miller. It's a lovely song. I had never heard it. One of my friends suggested it. With some of them, I had an idea to do some of the songs myself but I put the word out. I have a lot of music loving friends. A lot of songs turned up. The thing about Christmas songs is that they are great Christmas records but they're not always good songs when you deconstruct them. Finding songs that people don't know well, that's more of a tall order. This one turned out particularly well.
"The North Pole Express"
Our drummer found that song. We still don't know who wrote it or anything about it. It came on a kids' record label from the '50s. It was the Peter Pan label. It was like a Mister Rogers' Neighborhood character that did it. It sounds like it was for babies. The drummer thought it was a good song and we could put another beat to it and change it around and do something good to it. He was dead right.
"Hooves on the Roof"
My friend [singer-songwriter] Ron Sexsmith wrote it. He came down to the studio one night when we were recording and we played him a few things. And the next day he sent me "Hooves on the Roof." I think he just went back to his hotel and wrote it in the lobby. We were very pleased with it.
"I Was Born in Bethlehem"
I dreamt the song. It's that funny period right before you wake up. The idea is that if you are sitting on the plane next to Jesus and had a couple of cocktails and asked, "What do you do?" He's telling you what happened. That's the idea of it.
"Just to Be with You (This Christmas)"
That's a new song that I heard. One of my friends suggested it. We changed it a little bit but it's a really good one.
"Rise Up Shepherd"
That's another old traditional song that we heard by the Seeger Sisters. It's a traditional thing. We changed it.
That one goes without saying. It's a brilliant tune. There's a reason why it's been covered more than any other Christmas song. It's a real cracker, excuse the pun. We were just messing around in the studio. I started doing it. It made a pleasing sound and we thought it was great. I like it. It has a London sound about it. It sounds kind of like rock 'n' roll and little Caribbean. The horns sound like they're Caribbean. That little squirty organ makes it sound Caribbean too.
"A Dollar Short of Happy"
I wrote the song with Ry Cooder. He was asking me what I was up to. I told him I was doing a Christmas record. He was very dismissive. He thought it was a load of nonsense. I told him we were having fun doing it. A couple of days later he sent me some lyrics and I put the tune to it and came up with a nice Christmas song.
"I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day"
This is one of the few modern Christmas songs. It's about 40 years old. You hear it everywhere every Christmas. It came out in 1971. It's a fantastic record. It never really made it in America. Over here, it's a huge, huge song. You heard it absolutely everywhere. I don't know if anyone ever covered it. I thought I would have a go. We took out every other chord. If you do that, it's more of a rock 'n' roll song. The original version is much more like Phil Spector, kitchen sink-type of thing.
Nick Lowe's Quality Holiday Revue with special guests Los Straitjackets
8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $28, beachlandballroom.com.