‘Christmas Wrapping’ – undoubtedly one of the greatest festive hits of the past 50 years, and covered by none other than Kylie – has become a cruel legacy for The Waitresses, who wrote it to please their label and eventually split because of it. Cian Traynor speaks to the cast behind an accidental festive classic.
Chris Butler hates Christmas. It’s not just because of his rough upbringing in Ohio, where his family treated the holiday as a chance to express their distaste for each other. Nor is it simply because, as a self-confessed Scrooge, the faux jolliness has always grated against his sour demeanour. It also has something to do with ‘Christmas Wrapping’, the 1981 holiday hit Butler wrote with US new wave band The Waitresses. It’s the reason his singular style of songwriting is best known for a Christmas song covered by the Spice Girls.
Over a decade before the likes of Liz Phair, Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney helped redefine what a female voice could say in mainstream culture, The Waitresses squeezed previously taboo topics such as social imbalance, emotional honesty and sexuality into complex pop music. So when Butler wrote a throwaway song about a busy single woman who’d rather be alone than endure Christmas, its unique perspective produced an accidental hit.
By the time the Spice Girls covered ‘Christmas Wrapping’ in 1998, Butler was returning to his experimental roots: recording songs using archaic equipment like wax cylinders and writing abstract poetry. “I felt all sophisticated, like an avant-garde New Yorker,” he says. “Then along comes the most commercial entity in the fucking world covering a song of mine. It felt… awkward.” But, in a way, the song is emblematic of The Waitresses: witty, off-kilter pop offering sociological snapshots from a female perspective. Butler had no interest in formulaic love songs. Instead he would channel his songwriting through a ‘big sister’ protagonist – a “working woman with big dreams” – to articulate issues that, he says, most men were clueless about.
Before ‘Christmas Wrapping’, The Waitresses had a hit with ‘I Know What Boys Like’, an irresistibly detached pop nugget that satirised Butler’s local bar scene in Kent, Ohio. The state’s industrial collapse left graduates like Butler with few job prospects throughout the 1970s, though he says the “low-wattage desperation” it generated gave home-grown music an edge.
Ohio’s Chrissie Hynde had found success in the UK with The Pretenders, later writing the song ‘My City Was Gone’ about what she left behind, while Devo, Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys were lured away from Cleveland and Akron by record labels. Reports of their progress CBGB and Max’s Kansas City in equipment, he demoed ‘I Know What Boys Like’. Initially the song embarrassed him. He was in a high-brow band called Tin Huey and this just felt like pure pop fluff. “I vividly remember playing them my demo and the cold silence that preceded the words, ‘It’s not for us.'” Undeterred, he walked into a bar one afternoon and stood on a chair to ask if anyone was up for doing something different. The voice that piped up belonged to Patty Donahue, a 22-year-old waitress working her way through college. Together they fleshed out ‘I Know What Boys Like’ into something Butler felt confident taking to New York.
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Full of tricky rhythms, the music of The Waitresses was an angular jumble of jazz, ska and funk, and Donahue was just as unconventional. More of an actor than a singer, she’d step into character to deliver conversational lyrics with a playful, gum-snapping nonchalance.
“Patty was like Lucille Ball,” says Waitresses drummer Billy Ficca, sitting in the lobby of a Dublin hotel ahead of a gig with Television. “She could’ve walked straight into Saturday Night Live because she had that flair: she was very pretty and a great sense of humour.”
It didn’t take long to find others who saw the same potential. When Butler slipped an acetate of ‘I Know What Boys Like’ to Mark Kamins, a DJ at famed NYC nightclub Danceteria, he took it to Island Records as proof of his talent-spotting ability. The label were interested. But when they asked Butler where his band was, he bluffed, “Um, they’re back in Ohio.” After a hasty search, Butler wired his last $50 to Donahue so she could catch a bus to New York.
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Drawing inspiration from the discordant wizardry of Captain Beefheart and XTC, he enlisted an extraordinary cast of musicians: drummer Billy Ficca, a founding member of seminal post-punk group Television; experimental saxophonist Mars Williams, a future member of The Psychedelic Furs; keyboard classicist Dan Klayman; and funk-jazz bassist Tracy Wormworth, who would later be snapped up by Sting as a touring bassist and join the B-52’s.
The Waitresses’ first sessions together produced B-side ‘No Guilt’, which depicted Butler’s female protagonist asserting her independence following a break-up: “I’m sorry but I don’t feel awful/It wasn’t the end of the world.” Butler had the sense of a cultural milieu afoot – “a long overdue woman’s revolution” – and he wanted to be part of the dialogue.
“I noticed there were two or three stereotypes of women in music: the hard-rock babe, the sensitive folkie and maybe the black diva. I thought, ‘Where’s the normal working woman? Where’s the female Bruce Springsteen? It seemed pretty natural to build an honest personality that reflected what was going on around me.”
‘I Know What Boys Like’ became a staple of college radio, and despite Island refusing to spend money on its promotion, it gained enough momentum to reach Number 62 on the US charts two years later, in 1982.
‘Christmas Wrapping’ only came about after The Waitresses were farmed out to Island subsidiary ZE Records, a leftfield label with a roster featuring Suicide and John Cale. To Butler’s frustration, debut album ‘Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?’, was put on hold owing to distribution issues and he was required to write a song for ZE’s alternative seasonal compilation, ‘A Christmas Record’.
“[Label head] Michael Zilkha seemed to think it was a great irony to have the likes of Alan Vega doing a Christmas song. I perceived it as an annoyance. We didn’t have the time nor the material… and Christmas songs always broke my heart, in a lot of ways, so I tended to react to it very negatively.” Butler finished the lyrics to ‘Christmas Wrapping’ in a taxi on the way to the studio. The band banged the song out in two days and then resumed gigging for survival off the back of ‘I Know What Boys Like’.
That winter, while preparing for a show in Rochester, Butler phoned his girlfriend and discovered that The Waitresses were all over the radio. “I said, ‘Finally! We’ve been working that damn song for nine months.’ But she told me, ‘Um, no… it’s your Christmas song.”
Much like Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, which was a ground breaking success in the same year, ‘Christmas Wrapping’ drew from New York’s burgeoning hip-hop scene to get its point across: “No thanks, no party lights/It’s Christmas Eve… turned down all of my invites”. The song would peak at 45 in the UK charts, warranting a follow-up EP, ‘I Could Rule The World If I Could Only Get The Parts’, which contained ‘Christmas Wrapping’ and the theme song for high school sitcom Square Pegs, starring a 14-year-old Sarah Jessica Parker.
Its success also led the band to Polygram, where Butler was granted his first choice of studio and co-producer for a second album: Richard Branson’s Manor in Oxfordshire, the UK’s first residential studio, and Hugh Padgham, who was about to become of the most in-demand producers in music.
However, a new set of problems awaited. Butler had always written complex arrangements, fearful that if he didn’t sustain the interest of a gifted group of players, they’d grow bored. He envisioned ‘Bruiseology’ as a dark, brooding saga for his female protagonist – the middle chapter in a planned three-album arc. But the band was exhausted and Padgham’s commitment to begin work on The Police’s ‘Synchronicity’ left them with little time.
“Our band just kind of imploded,” says Butler. “It was a hard deadline and it looked like we weren’t going to make it, though thankfully we did. But it cost us: it killed the band.” Padgham recalls little of the sessions – “either the drugs and alcohol were too good or I’m mentally blocking it out” – and seems shocked at the lack of information about The Waitresses online. Perhaps more tellingly, he doesn’t hear a hit single when he pulls up ‘Bruiseology’ on Spotify.
“If I remember, Chris was an inveterate worrier. I’ve got a feeling that everything was a problem. Billy, the drummer, seemed to have a real self-confidence crisis. Then there was Mars, the saxophone player, who was quite mad and great fun. But the lasting memory is that Patty and Chris always seemed to be rowing.”
‘Bruiseology’ fared poorly and the band folded shortly after its release in 1983. In Butler’s liner notes to 1990’s ‘The Best Of The Waitresses’, he wrote: “How could a bunch of stubborn people who refused to be cliches stumble smack into a typical showbiz crash-and-burn?”Asked how he’d answer that now, Butler groans and briefly slips into silence. “Maybe volatile people in a high-stress industry equals irritability and eventual collapse,” he says. “The whole idea of being a successful rock’n’roll fuck-up is a myth. It doesn’t work. You might love each other, you might love what you’re doing, but sometimes that’s not enough.”
Pushed on where it all went wrong, Ficca is reticent. “Even if a marriage breaks up, it doesn’t mean it was a bad marriage. It was just time. Sometimes a band’s energy is done when they’ve made their point.”
But if The Waitresses had made their point, why would Butler write an unrealised third album? Why would Donahue continue as Patty Donahue and The Waitresses before becoming a label A&R? (She died from lung cancer in 1996.)
“It was all about the focus,” Ficca says with a sigh. “The Waitresses involved a lot of personalities. Maybe there were differences in what everybody wanted or felt they deserved.”
After years of seeing covers (Glee, Kate Nash, Martha Wainwright) and samples (Jay-Z, Chris Brown, Girl Talk) accumulate, Butler has fantasised about resurrecting The Waitresses. There’s something incomplete about the recently released ‘Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses’, and given the clarity of hindsight, Butler understands why.
“Patty really allowed herself to enjoy [the experience] more than I did. She was, how do I say this diplomatically, prone to excess. Her personality would change accordingly and that didn’t help. But she was a talent and I was demanding of her for someone with no experience. I felt responsible because The Waitresses was my ‘baby’. Had I known it would collapse on me, I would’ve had much more fun. But I turned it into a job real fast.”
This feature originally appeared in the Christmas 2014 issue of NME