FOR EVERY ACTION, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So it is, too, with Christmas music. Does the sound of Mahalia Jackson huffing and puffing through "Go Tell It on the Mountain" make you want to jump off a cliff? Then perhaps your seasonal needs would be better addressed by the subtle sentiments of Fear's punk rock classic, "*uck Christmas."
Those music lovers who prefer holiday tunes as sour as last year's eggnog have something extra special to celebrate this year: the 20th-anniversary rerelease of "Christmas With Satan," by pioneering "no wave" saxophonist James Chance. Paired with the equally heartwarming "The Devil Made Me Do It," from Chance's 1983 LP Flaming Demonics, "Satan" is currently available as a limited-edition 3-inch CD (on Tiger Style) at better record vendors. Forget the frankincense—bring on the brimstone!
For those of you unfamiliar with the name James Chance (a.k.a. James White, James Black, or, to his family, James Sigfried), fie on you, and here's hoping terrorists trimmed your tree with razor wire and stuffed deadly vipers in your stocking. In the late '70s, Chance managed to rub both the leather-jacket-clad habitu鳠of CBGB and Downbeat subscribers the wrong way with his propulsive fusion of punk, funk, and free jazz. A founding member of Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, he split to form his own ensemble, the Contortions, whose 1979 debut, Buy, featured the abrasive underground smash, "Contort Yourself." That same year, under the moniker James White and the Blacks, the Contortions also dropped a disco LP, Off White, featuring a spastic reading of "Heat Wave" that drags the Irving Berlin classic kicking and screaming from Tin Pan Alley down to the Bowery.
But, as is so often the case at Christmastime, Chance wasn't motivated solely by goodwill when he recorded "Christmas With Satan" back in 1982. He did it because he wanted something special from Old Saint Nick: a reconciliation with his record label. The sax player had been estranged from the folks at ZE Records—home to Was (Not Was) and the Waitresses—since the release of Buy and Off White, over what Chance now calls "typical music business nonsense." So when label boss Michael Zilkha asked him to contribute something to a new edition of the seminal compilation A Christmas Record (which featured outr頨oliday fare from acts including Suicide and Material), Chance agreed, even though the very notion made him choke on his cocoa.
"My first reaction was, 'What a drag. Of all the things he'd want me to do. . . ,'" says Chance today. "I wasn't enthusiastic about the whole idea, but I did it, because I wanted us to get back together. And it took me a long time to think of an idea that was any good." But when he did, it was a scorcher, a 10-minute track about a suicide who winds up at Lucifer's yuletide bash, a sinewy funk workout laced with dissonant snippets of chestnuts like "Winter Wonderland" and "The Christmas Song." "I came up with music about an hour before the session," Chance admits nonchalantly.
Alas, when "Christmas With Satan" originally hit the record stores, something wasn't quite right—like when you ask for a black sweater and your parents buy the yellow one instead. The label had lopped Chance's lengthy intro, almost three minutes of moody piano, sax, and vocals, off the track! "I didn't realize it until a long time after it had been released," claims Chance. Fortunately, the rerelease restores the ditty to its full, 10-minute glory, and he's jolly as hell about it. "I've always felt like ['Satan'] was something that got totally ignored and it's unique, not only as far as my catalog, but also Christmas songs."
AND FOR YOU GREEDY brats who can't be satisfied with a mere two-song single, there's more good news. In February, Tiger Style will release Irresistible Impulse, a four-CD box set including all three of the aforementioned Chance full-lengths, plus Sax Maniac, his 1982 LP for Chris Stein's Animal imprint, and a gaggle of rarities. Among the many hard-to-find gems featured are his 1979 rendition of the Elvis ballad "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," an unreleased cover of Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity," and three numbers from the Japan-only release Melt Yourself Down.
Today, with critically lauded acts like the Rapture and Liars borrowing heavily from Chance's innovations, the era when he regularly traded blows with disgruntled Soho patrons is a distant memory. On the heels of Irresistible Impulse, he has a finished disc, Down and Dirty ("it's a cross between Charles Mingus and Wynonie Harris or Screamin' Jay Hawkins") that he plans to drop on new audiences. And he's been gigging around New York again, too. After a long absence, James Chance is back—now that's something to celebrate.