Joey Ramone's original four-track demo version of "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" is not the version that bar-punks now hail as a classic, and I don't know how far it’s reached since being released on a seven-inch last year, but I still love it. It's rusty, the guitars are a fraction out of tune, and the lead guitar lines amble in and out at random. The chords are different too; it wasn't a "Blitzkrieg Bop"-like pop-punk song when Joey first wrote it. Instead, with its blue notes and suspended chords and swung electric drums, it sounds like one of his most faithful tributes to the Phil Spector-produced girl groups he loved. The Ronettes would have nailed it.
"Merry Christmas…" was always a sad song deep down, and even the chugging and the straightforward version that made it onto 1989's Brain Drain and slowly became an alt-holiday staple couldn't hide that. Joey's first two questions in the verse—"Where is Santa? At his sleigh?"—seem silly, but he follows that up with a jolt of anguish: "Tell me, why is it always this way?" The last time he asked that question in a Ramones song, he was singing about a suicide.
There's also a dumbfounded innocence to the lyrics. Only Joey, the sweetest Ramone, could have written a song about avoiding conflict at Christmastime, name-checked a couple of reindeer, and sung: "All the children are tucked in their beds / Sugar-plum fairies dancing in their heads." That makes his plea for reconciliation in the chorus that much more devastating. "I love you and you love me / And that's the way it's got to be."
It's difficult to separate those lines from the emotional battering that Joey had recently taken. Maybe it was a pained peace offering to Johnny Ramone, who had walked away with Joey's girlfriend, Linda, in 1981, leaving him spurned and in tatters. Maybe it was partly for Linda herself, who married Johnny in 1984. Maybe it's both; maybe it's neither. But the altered lyrics in the scuzzy Ramones version feel like a giveaway. On Brain Drain, he sings, "I loved you from the start / 'Cause Christmas ain't the time for breaking each other's hearts," making the song seem like a post-quarrel reassurance from one lover to another. The official video for the song picked up that theme and ran with it:
But Joey's original line was trickier: "Why have we been torn apart?" Singing that line solo on the demo version, it turns the chorus into something broken-down and lovelorn.
On some level, it makes sense to switch that line out. Joey had to deliver the song with Johnny next to him and, if it did have anything to do with their fractured relationship (didn't everything?), it could have been a nightmare for Joey to deliver. But I'm guessing the impulse was seasonal as well. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" ended up Sinatrafied, its one remaining drop of melancholy mopped up by an anodyne stand-in lyric. While the Ramones didn't commit a crime that heinous here, it's still a shame that Joey's heartbreak was absorbed by something more palatable. I guess the upside is that the Ramones version was easier to include in A Very Special Christmas with Beavis and Butthead.
Joey died in 2001 after a long fight with lymphoma, and a truly strange version of "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want Want to Fight Tonight)" ended up on his second posthumous LP, …Ya Know, in 2012. It's packed with overdubs from Mickey Leigh, Joey's little brother, the same guy who held up the tape recorder for Joey to sing his demo version into some time in the mid-80s. Acoustic drums, a little bass, and some extra guitars work their way in. It was, like the rest of …Ya Know, supposed to bring Joey back to life on record. But the LP too often sounded clean and inert, which was a shame if not a shock.
If you really want to go deep, Sleater-Kinney covered the song live in 2015. The video's up on YouTube, and it's worth watching just to realize how much Carrie Brownstein—with her intense vocal exaggerations—shares with Joey. And if you want to terrorize people at Christmas parties, there's a Smash Mouth version out there as well.
But it's still best in its first form, raw and strange, a throwback to a time when girl groups ruled and a few Christmas songs still led with heartache.
Alex Robert Ross don't want to fight on Twitter.