Dating back to sometime around the late ‘60s, folks have laid claim to bands serving satellite as versions of the Grateful Dead. No doubt you’ve heard declarations like that of Sweden’s Trad Gras och Stenar occupying the space of the “Swedish Dead,” The Velvet Underground or Television as “New York’s answer to the Grateful Dead,” The Allman Brothers as the “Southern Dead,” Jay-Z “rap’s (self-declared) Grateful Dead,” and – for more extreme heads – Les Rallizes Dénudés as Japan’s twisted embodiment of the California band and their group-mind ethos.
Here in Canada, though, the band most deserving of flying the Dead flag would have to be the short-lived Oshawa band known as Christmas, or as they were initially intended to be called, The Society For The Year-Round Preservation of Christmas — the band responsible for what is likely Canada’s rarest vinyl record, one that was never supposed to exist in the first place.
“We were going in to record a twelve top hits album,” says Bob Bryden, guitarist and singer for both of the now legendary 1960s Oshawa-based psych bands Reign Ghost and Christmas, about the sessions that became the latter’s 1970 self-titled LP. “Somewhere there’s a tape of Christmas doing ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Age of Aquarius’ that’s probably long gone. What happened was the record company just asked us to jam. And so we did. We jammed.”
At the time Bryden was only 18, the “old man” in a group of even younger teens. But by then he had already filled out an accomplished resume as a player the in-house band for Oshawa’s hippie social force The Raspberries, a project titled The Christopher Columbus Discovery of New Lands Band, and a pair of excellent and widely different albums as Reign Ghost, both in the same heady year of 1969.
Following the breakup of Reign Ghost, the unlikely named Christmas came together as a suburban supergroup featuring top players from around the Oshawa circuit. “When [Reign Ghost vocalist] Linda Squires joined the cast of Hair, I was free to form my own dream band. I had been watching players around Oshawa for a couple of years and I called together five guys to the coffee shop at Sears at the Oshawa Centre to have a meeting to form Christmas… we had The Christopher Columbus Discovery of New Lands Band and there was The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, so it was kind of hip to have a long name. For obvious reasons we shortened it to Christmas. But it’s just like calling your band Yes. It’s just very positive.”
With a sound that fuses Jerry Garcia style guitar riffs with chant-y vocals and hypnotic drumming, it would seem that Bryden and company were drinking in some of that West Coast sound.
“Christmas was doing a lot of the same things as the Grateful Dead and those bands, just in the Oshawa scene,” says Bryden, who is quick to dismiss any conscious influence. But to further the Dead connection, one might even draw comparison to the early gigs at the The Raspberries’ events, which in more than one way resembled the Dead’s own as the house band at Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters Acid Tests. “This was the time when I was starting to veer into experimenting with substances. It was almost literal, this idea of the year-round preservation of the spirit of Christmas, not only in terms of generosity and giving and goodwill, but also just in terms of partying. At the time, I have to confess, it was kind of like ‘that’s what you do in life.’ You would celebrate your life everyday all year-round.”
“The deal was we could go in and record all these cover versions anonymously, but we would also be allowed to record a couple songs of our own that would be included on the album as well, even though they’d be anonymous. Totally crazy,” says Bryden.
The first side of Christmas’ self-titled record is slightly more grounded than its counterpart, featuring three structured songs and an instrumental jam titled “Oasis.”
The entire second side, however, is occupied by a single continuous jam that veers straight for the cosmos. Oddly titled “Jungle Fabulous,” it’s a slow burning, highly psychedelic jam that recalls the Dead’s “Dark Star” with its deep cymbal swells and Robert Bulger’s fluttery guitar lines interlacing with those of rhythm guitarist Bryden.
“‘Jungle Fabulous’ would have been recorded in the same year the Dead released “Dark Star,” says Bryden. “[It’s] representative of jams Christmas had been doing for the full year. If there’s any influence it’s unconscious and just has to do with the fact that they are both long jams.”
When Paragon, the band’s record label, decided to scrap the Top Twelve Hits idea, they instead put out the record with the three original songs and the two jams. They even decided to use the band’s name! Only, they forgot to tell them about it. Released just a few months after the recording session had taken place, the album initially received high praise, but never took off due to limited airplay inside or outside of Canada, partly resulting from the lack of Canadian content regulations, partly due to its having been released without the band’s knowledge or consent.
“Christmas had recorded a third jam which was much better than the shorter one on the album (‘Oasis’) and they didn’t include that one. They put the whole thing together without our input,” says Bryden.
Unaware of how many records had been pressed, Bryden ended up selling off the rights to his Reign Ghost material in order to get out of his contract with the label and sign to the larger Daffodil imprint, who would release the second and final Christmas album, Heritage, the following year. But again without much exposure, and limited touring behind them, both albums eventually fell the way of the wind before turning up years later as high priced collector’s items.
“We were selling records but they weren’t flying off anybody’s shelves. We were in all of the record stores I knew of and people were buying the records, but I have no idea what sales were like or any of that,” says Bryden. “It was just such a naive time. Everything happened really fast. I didn’t have a clue of the legalities or anything like that.”
These days, copies of Christmas’ self-titled LP trade for as high as $2500, but rarely change hands due to the extremely limited number of them out there.
“We have no idea how many records were pressed. We have no clue,” says Bryden. “At the time you never thought to ask how many were being pressed. I don’t know if it was 200 or 50 or 2,000 or 10,000. But I assume it was pretty low because of the collectability factor now…maybe 500 or 100. I don’t know. Maybe less, maybe more… Those things were never even supposed to be released. It was never even meant to happen. It just did.”