Logo: Dominick Rabrun
To make absolutely sure that a song registers as Christmas music, a pop producer can follow a few basic rules. Sleigh bells on the downbeat and some scattered church bells are the obvious shortcuts; high-up strings and canned choirs certainly help. Most truly mainstream musicians are shooting for tinseled whimsy, warm fuzzies, and a picture of mittened masses tipping their hats to each other on their way to a family gathering. A few frills will get you there without too much sweat.
If this isn't enough, an artist can always faithfully cover one of the early-to-mid-20th Century classics—"White Christmas" or "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" or anything else that Phil Spector perfected in 1963—and have done with it. Christmas thrives on nostalgia, a reminder of a time when at least some people woke up thrilled by the prospect of presents and an eternity away from school. There's some sense in going back in time, dusting something off, and adding a coat of fresh lacquer.
Twenty-five years ago, TLC did all of this on "Sleigh Ride." It was, at least in theory, a cover of a well-known light orchestra standard. There was the reassuring rattle of jingle bells above the hi-hat and some background church chimes over the synths. But "Sleigh Ride" was so much more than that. It was a song warped so far beyond recognition that it became uniquely their own. It was full of frivolous jokes and messy happiness, and it did something that so many modern holiday songs have strived to do before failing so horribly—it made Christmas sound fun.
The original "Sleigh Ride," a chirpy instrumental, was penned by Leroy Anderson in 1948 and became an immediate hit when it was released a year later. The Andrews Sisters recorded the first vocal performance of the song in 1950, using lyrics written by Mitchell Parish—the same man behind the words to jazz standards like "Stardust" and "Deep Purple." The Ronettes' version of the song on the practically flawless A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector in 1963 is the most popular, but there have been dozens of "Sleigh Ride"s over the years. It's in the canon.
TLC took a novel approach to the song in 1993. Rather than borrowing from The Ronettes or even commissioning a remix of an older cut, they basically ignored the original altogether. They worked around an entirely new vocal hook, a beat produced by Organized Noize and co-produced by their then-manager Pebbles, and pretty much a whole new set of lyrics. The hook is so classically festive that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was there in the 1950 version: "Let's have a very merry Christmas / And a happy New Year / Give with love and joy and happiness / And lots of good cheer." But Parish's lyrics didn't even mention Christmas. The only call-back to the original comes from T-Boz, who sings to an entirely unfamiliar melody: "Just hear those sleigh bells jing-a-ling / Ring-ting-ting-a-ling too / It's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you."
(All of which might make you think that this isn't a cover at all, and I get it. If you all but rewrite a song's lyrics and sing those lyrics to a whole new tune over an entirely different beat, isn't it just a new song? The answer is obviously yes, in the same way that an old broom with a new head and a new handle is just a new broom. But go back in time and tell that to LaFace Records, who listed only two songwriters on the original CD copy of the track: Anderson and Parish.)
TLC's "version" is best appreciated alongside its video, which features T-Boz, Chilli, and Left Eye wearing baggy overalls, working through some awkward treeside encounters with boyfriends, helping the needy, and leading a half-decent dance party. "I want T-Boz to get me some headphone sets, and I want Left Eye to make me a fly dress," Chilli says, beaming, at the top of the song. Left Eye's verse is an open challenge to anyone who wants to hang out with her, opening with a too-cool-for-this-shit lead-in—"Uh-huh reindeer, presents, happiness… yeah right, check it out…"—and then using the "sleigh ride" as a metaphor for what I'm guessing was simply romance, because this was a PG-13 Christmas track. (The B-side to the single, "All I Want for Christmas"—no relation—is less ambiguous.)
This was just before TLC's peak, a year before CrazySexyCool and years before outside pressures would make things tense, so it's safe to assume that a lot of the trio's chemistry was natural and unforced here. In an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, Chilli even said that the verse was her favorite Left Eye moment: "I really love how she rapped in our Christmas song,'" she said. "I miss how silly we all used to be together. It was just how we interacted, at least when we were all liking each other at the same time—you know how sisters are!" They were gunning for airplay here (and a featured spot on the Home Alone 2 soundtrack didn't hurt), but TLC were genuinely enjoying themselves.
"Sleigh Ride" is unquestionably of its time, but that's its greatest asset—where most pop musicians try to tap into familiar moods and melodies at Christmas, TLC decided to sound like themselves, then threw a few bells on there. There's more than one way to access warm holiday vibes. Sometimes you just have to rewrite the songs from scratch.
Alex Robert Ross has been listening to FanMail again. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.