“Don’t Believe in Christmas” isn’t just a great Christmas song—it’s one of the greatest garage rock songs ever recorded.
This song does everything a great rock ‘n’ roll song should. It’s a wild jalopy powered by snotty attitudes and barely tuned guitars and stitched together by wrapping paper, ribbons and scotch taps careening down a rocky road paved by Chuck Berry. Though it clocks in at a tight one minute and 47 seconds, the song’s manic energy lifts spirits for days.
In short, it’s a holiday miracle. And according to Sonics founding member and saxophonist Bob Lind, it was invented on the spot.
“Normally when a band goes into a studio, depending on how complex it’s gonna get, doing an album takes about a year,” Lind says. “And some bands take two or three. You know, like R.E.M. took years on some of their albums. Well back then, for The Sonics, it was two days.”
The Tacoma, Washington garageband was riding high in 1965. Speaker bursting Sonic songs like “The Witch” and “Strychnine” were regional hits in the Pacific Northwest and they shared bills with major rock acts like The Kinks. Their record label, Etiquette Records, asked them to contribute two songs to a Christmas album along with fellow northwest rockers the Wailers and the Galaxies.
“They approached us and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a Christmas album with some of the other bands from the Etiquette label and Wailers are gonna put some songs on. We want you guys to do two songs,’” Lind says. “And we said, ‘Oh, gee. Okay, guys. When do you want us to do it?’ And they said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
They showed up to the studio at the appointed time. The only problem: they had no idea what they were going to record.
“You know, the guy’s sitting on the other side of the glass, not smiling, staring at you, going, ‘Okay. What do you guys wanna do now,’” Lind says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Holy crap. What do you wanna do?’”
The band didn’t know any Christmas songs, but they knew how to steal from the masters of the pop song form.
“We love The Kinks, and we had opened a bunch of shows in the Northwest for them,” Lind says. “And so, what [Sonics singer] Gerry [Roslie] did with ‘Don’t Believe In Christmas’ was, he took The Kinks song, ‘Too Much Monkey Business,’ and he wrote lyrics for it.”
In the course of running through the Kinks song (which was, in fact, a Chuck Berry cover) The Sonics, as they always do, stepped hard on the gas. They performed an instrumental with manic energy and unrelenting drums.
“Gerry took a couple of sheets of typewriter paper and went into the studio, put a headset on, and sang ‘Don’t Believe In Christmas,’” Lind says.
Roslie may have been rushed, but it’s clear he was inspired. The lyrics are drunk holiday fun. “stayed up late at night to see Santa Claus, right?/Sure enough, don’t you know, fat boy didn’t show” and “the reason [Rudolph’s] nose shine/is that Santa gave him moonshine.”
With “Don’t Believe in Christmas” in the can, they still needed another song for the album. After a quick lunch break, their thoughts turned to their fellow garage rockers The Premiers, who had a hit with the song “Farmer John.”
“We played ‘Farmer John’ every night, ’cause the crowds loved it,” Lind says. “So we said, ‘All right, let’s just lay down the band track from ‘Farmer John’—it was like one take, ’cause we knew it intimately. And then Gerry puts on a headset and goes in there; instead of ‘Farmer John,’ he’s going, ‘Santa Claus,’ and that was it.”
The Sonics are still touring but don’t include their Christmas songs in their sets. But holiday miracles are always possible.