Christmas (Spirit of)
Origin: Oshawa, Ontario
The True Story of Christmas
By J.S. Wraggs
(Originally written Feb. 1990 – updated Oct. 2009)
In December of 1969, fresh from the break-up of another legendary Canadian 60’s band – The Reign Ghost, songwriter/singer/guitarist Bob Bryden embarked on the quest to form his ultimate dream band. He had a little red suitcase full of original, unexplored songs that had been too ambitious for the previous ensemble and he knew some great players looking for material to play.
Bryden called a meeting in the Simpsons-Sears coffee shop at the main shopping centre in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. Invited to this meeting were five extremely talented and extremely long-haired musicians from the area. They had already distinguished themselves in Bryden’s mind in one or way or another as being very ‘unique’ personalities and/or as the cream of local musicians. Their names were – in order of appearance: Wolfgang Hryciuk, Rich (AKA Helge) Richter, Gary Squires, Tyler Raizenne and last but definitely not least, Robert Bulger.
Wolfgang or ‘Wolfie’ Hryciuk (pronounced Her-eye-chuck) was a very strong and hip personality on the local scene. He was one of the first ‘Oshawans’ to grow their hair long in 60’s. Gary Squires was the brother of Lynda Squires, singer for Reign Ghost and a fine vocalist in his own right. Rich Richter had been with Bryden in the 2nd reincarnation of Reign Ghost and Tyler had played with Bryden a few years earlier in an R&B outfit called The Bluez Proclamation. Robert Bulger was legendary (even then) around Oshawa as a burgeoning guitarist’s guitarist.
One thing that set these motley musical renegades apart from the herd – and brought them together was that they were unanimous in their disapproval of the commercialism in the Canadian music scene. At the momentous coffee shop meeting, they all hit if off immediately and decided to form the band. Bryden was heard to quote Yul Brynner from ‘The Magnificent Seven’: ‘Now we are six.’
An exhausting schedule of rehearsals was quickly drawn up and Bryden presented his original material to the band for musical elaboration. Within a few short months the new group, dubbed The Society for the Year Round Preservation of the Spirit of Christmas, was ready to perform in concert. (If you think that name long – a previous band of Bryden’s was called The Christopher Columbus Discovery of New Land’s Band and that had been chosen instead of, The Abraham Lincoln Freedom of Man Plan!!) For practicality, the name was quickly shortened to Christmas. However, all those initiated into the band’s inner circle knew just how appropriate the original, long name was to the band’s philosophy and lifestyle. Bryden had been a self-confessed Christmas junkie his whole life through. (The main attraction being that it was one of the few times a year when he could actually get record albums!)
Performing their special brand of ‘cosmic-rock-symphonies’ to the teenagers of Oshawa and it’s environs Christmas were not very well received. (The prophet is never accepted in his home town – or even his home land for that matter.) Most people, even ‘hip’ people found the band’s blazing but deeply personal music highly inaccessible to say the least. The group proceeded undaunted. Maximizing a connection with the Toronto-based Allied Records firm, Christmas was quickly ushered into a recording ‘arrangement’. (Allied and it’s subsidiary label Paragon were known for putting out quickie, low-budget country albums and for being the distributor in Canada of the wondrous Elektra label. Bryden took a little consolation in being even so loosely connected with the label of The Doors, Clear Light, Ars Nova, Earth Opera, etc.) In actuality, Allied had conscripted Christmas to be the largely un-credited players on the kind of budget-priced ‘Top Ten Hits’ ‘cover’ albums which seemed to be, strangely, so popular up to that time. The band reluctantly condescended to do this project to gain some studio experience for those members newest to the business and in exchange for two original songs being included on the lp. These sessions were proceeding dismally, as might be expected considering the nascent creativity of the musicians involved, when the producers of the session Jack Boswell and CBC TV country-Video-jockey ‘Cousin’ Bill Bessey, spontaneously asked the group to ‘jam awhile’. The rest is record collector’s history. Two of three jams recorded became ‘Oasis’ and ‘Jungle Fabulous’, two pivotal tracks on an album that was never meant to be created let alone released at all! An album that has become one of the hottest collector’s items in the world bar none: the first Christmas album on Paragon. (An original copy of the album went for over $2,000.00 on Ebay in 2005 and a copy has been listed subsequently with a starting bid of over $4,000.00!!!) When the producer’s heard the jams they scrapped the ’10 Top Hits’ idea and decided to release an ‘original’ album. Bryden had also asked, during the sessions, if he could record a song ‘solo’. So with the jams, the two original songs originally agreed upon plus ‘Sorry, I Bore Ya, Victoria’ there was enough original material to form an album. (Boswell swears that the tapes of Christmas doing ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Age of Aquarius’, etc. have long since been completely lost. Wouldn’t they be a hoot to hear!? All cringe.) The band was NOT informed of the decision to release an original lp and virtually the first time they heard about it was when they were presented with finished copies! Needless to say – they were surprised. Bryden felt that the best jam had, in fact, been left off (and has subsequently also disappearede.) He was not particulary happy about the decision although he’s come to admit it’s better than the ‘Top Hits’ lp would have been. (On a technical note, it should be mentioned that like the previous two Reign Ghost albums, Christmas One was recorded in a basement studio of a suburban home on a four-track recorder with virtually no time or care given to overdubs, corrections of any kind or even second ‘takes’.)
Christmas continued to rehearse fervently, resolutely uncompromised despite the absence of outside interest or even gigs. They holed up in an old, unused barracks building at the Oshawa airport honing their craft, virtually living there for several years, separated from the community by a country field, surrounded by broken WW2 vintage planes, unused tanks and the occasional foray by Military cadets on manouevres. It’s an acknowledged fact that most of their best music was produced for an audience of about 5 friends who would come in-and-out of the practice space and hear these magnum opus epic pieces like ‘Hero’s Welcome’, ‘Black Winter’, ‘Lava’ or ‘The Garden of Eshorah’ – none of which were ever recorded. Other bands also practiced in rooms down the hall in the barracks including Cellophane Spoon (who later had a moderate hit single under the band name Wednesday) and Sam Hill (whose members would one day morph into Moxy.) Around this time, due to personal reasons, Gary Squires felt inclined to leave the band. Shortly thereafter ‘Wolfie’ also left the unit. The band was determined to go on as a 4 piece with Bryden now handling the lead-singer chores.
In the summer of 1970, as hysteria in Canada mounted around a new cultural fad, something called ‘Canadian Content’, Christmas finally came to the attention of a few ‘real’ record labels. The CRTC was formed to literally force Canadian radio to play Canadian records. Sad that it was necessary but living so close to America, all things Canadian HAVE to struggle to assert their identity!!
Toronto’s Daffodil records were already having good reaction to some of their signings, including Hamilton Ontario’s King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar. Former Reign Ghost singer, Lynda Squires had been enjoying a successful year as an original member of the Toronto cast of ‘Hair’. She introduced the band to the Daffodil label. Co-founders of Daffodil, Frank (Francis) Davies and veteran rock journalist Ritchie Yorke, invited the band to audition upstairs at the legendary ‘Le Coq D’Or Tavern’ on Yonge Street in Toronto. Davies and Yorke were very impressed. So much so that Daffodil signed Christmas immediately. Bryden had to forfeit ALL rights including publishing on the 3 Allied albums he had made in order to get out of his contract. Davies and Yorke traveled the 35 miles out to the Oshawa airport to hear more of the band’s material and begin tweaking things for an album. Thus the streamlined Christmas was now zooming into the anticipated heavenly land of 16-track recording. At this point Bryden was the oldest member at 19 years, with Bulger at 18 and Tyler and Rich a ripe old 16 years apiece!
In the fall of 1970 Christmas recorded their first album for Daffodil Records, ‘Heritage’. The young group of musicians were clearly overwhelmed by this sudden immersion into multi-track recording wonderland. The Allied ‘experience’ had not really been a good preparation. Nevertheless, the ambitious album was completed and released in December, 1970 along with a single not included on the Lp, ‘Don’t Give It Away’ b/w ‘Farewell Sweet Lovin’. Daffodil were truly visionary in that they were one of the first labels anywhere to be primarily ‘artist-driven’ and ‘indie’, licensing their product out for distribution to a ‘major’. At this time, Daffodil had a distribution arrangement with none other than Capitol Records (in Canada only.) Bryden still has very vivid memories of the day ‘Heritage’ was released – the very same day as George Harrison’s first solo opus, ‘All Things Must Pass’ came out. Bryden was at the Capitol offices in Mississauga, Ontario and observed first hand how ‘Heritage’ was virtually swamped, capsized and ignored in the promotional melee surrounding the Harrison release. (So much for ‘Canadian Content’ regulations.) Although receiving some good press and what they used to call ‘regional action’ (airplay in remote places in Canada,) ‘Heritage’ did not change the world as expected. The band was devastated; the record company was frustrated and everybody went back to their respective drawing boards. A three year long nightmare of depression, delay and detour was about to begin for the idealistic young band. (As an aside: the engineer on ‘Heritage’ was Terry Brown who went on to produce Rush. Legend has it that Brown played Christmas for Rush and that they were heavily influenced by Christmas. Ironically, Bryden says that Christmas used to go down to a bar in Oshawa called ‘Harry’s Hideaway’ and mock Rush when the latter were a Zeppelin cover band as being a total sell-out. Christmas were admittedly a real bunch of ‘art snobs’.)
Daffodil Records had started out as Canada’s answer to Apple Records, in a flurry of that high-toned, idealistic 60’s ‘Woodstock’ mentality which was pretty well snuffed out for good at Altamont. After ‘Heritage’, the light began to change. Under financial pressure, Daffodil insisted that compromises had to be made. Christmas were ‘convinced’ to do the unthinkable: not only to record something overtly commercial but to record SOMEONE ELSE’S MATERIAL! In 1971, despite fierce opposition from the band, Christmas recorded and released what was to them (at the time) an unbearable, saccharine, bubble-gum anthem called ‘I’m a Song, Sing Me’ written by none other than Neil Sedaka!! Perhaps it’s a kind of cosmic justice that while this blatant attempt to grab a dollar did garner minor airplay in eastern Canada, elsewhere it died without a whimper. Around the same time the band played a now legendary set opening up for Crowbar in Toronto at Massey Hall. Crowbar did the band a great disservice by getting them totally stoned and drunk before their own set. (How naïve could Christmas be?) Nevertheless, taking the stage in an explosive and volatile stand of progressive musical anarchy, the set has since been called ‘prophetic’ of punk rebellions to come. In 1971, however, Christmas succeeded only in further alienating themselves from the ‘boogie-till-you-puke’ crowd that had filled Massey Hall to hear Crowbar’s ‘old time rock and roll.’ (The Christmas set was recorded and eventually released in 2 versions: one EQ’d and mastered by Bryden himself on vinyl with Daffodil’s approval from a cassette board tape which is the preferred although very rare and limited version and a second release on CD by Unidisc which is a complete disaster. It was not even mixed!! Unforgivable because the master tapes could have easily been accessed and rendered lovingly!)
After these debacles, Christmas was like a wounded animal limping back to it’s cave. In desperation, the band decided to expand their line-up by adding Preston Wynn from Whitby, Ontario. Preston had become a friend of the band’s and was quite proficient vocally and on guitar and piano. It sounds cliché, but Christmas literally retreated to a barn in the country north of Oshawa to begin a lengthy season of rehearsals for their next album and once more pursue their creative visions unbothered and unfettered. In 1972, at Manta Studios in Toronto, the band began recording what would become their landmark opus (at least in terms of musical complexity,) ‘Lies To Live By’. The album was again produced by Frank Davies. The engineer was Lee DeCarlo (who would later engineer ‘Double Fantasy’ for John and Yoko Lennon.) It says a lot for Daffodil Records that throughout all these up’s and down’s with Christmas the record company did not completely abandon them or lose faith in the group’s abilities and, in fact, set out to support and bankroll one of the most fiercely uncommercial albums of all time.
The ‘Lies To Live By’ project was a lesson in endurance for all. Several times the project and the whole record company stood at the brink of collapse. At one point due to financial woes the whole project was completely shelved indefinitely, plunging all concerned into a seemingly interminable limbo. Facing such uncertainty the members of Christmas all sought other activities to keep themselves afloat. Concurrent with his interest in spiritual things (initially prompted by reading J. Krishnamurti, Allan Watts and ‘The Chrysalids’) Bryden began working in a hippy social-work group called ‘Project Love’; Richter took a day job at the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital in Whitby; Bulger, Tyler and Preston did whatever they could to keep their sanity and their lives together. Between the time that the bedtracks for ‘Lies’ were laid and the final overdubs were eventually made, a period of nearly two years, the band all got very interested in ‘fusion’ music and especially The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Bryden describes: ‘The album is like the Mahavishnu Orchestra jamming all over Jethro Tull, because that’s exactly how the album started (the bedtracks) and where it ended (the overdubs) in terms of our influences.’
Given the adverse conditions, it seems a genuine miracle that the album ever did see the light of day. Daffodil was bailed out at the eleventh hour by ‘Wild’ Bill Ballard, son of hockey legend, promoter Harold Ballard. Towards the end of 1974, Christmas’s last and (arguably) greatest work reached the record stores in Canada. In yet another attempt on Daffodil’s part to manufacture ‘accessibility’ and impart the notion that this was somehow a ‘new’ or ‘different’ band, the decision was made to re-lengthen the name to The Spirit of Christmas (??) This makes the issue of the album’s cover even more incomprehensible from a marketing viewpoint. The sprawling fold-out cover is a desperately bleak and morbid collection of black-acid vignettes from artist Gary ‘The Wizard’ Gatti – each image reflecting a lyric from the album. Bryden describes: ‘It’s like a Moody Blues cover on strychnine’. The band’s name and the title of the album are written on the horrifically ‘busy’ cover but are nearly impossible to discern. This is how the new product went out to an unsuspecting Canadian public. There was a tiny sticker added with clearer information but all in all it’s no wonder Bryden calls his current company, Marketing Man’s Nightmare! Also, by this time, Daffodil had left Capitol, been distributed temporarily distributed by GRT and finally landed at Herb Alpert’s ultra-mellow A$M Records just in time for the strychnine-laced ‘Lies’.
Reaction to ‘Lies To Live By’ (both the album and the ‘new’ band’s concerts) in the media and the public – with the exception of a few good reviews – ranged from stone cold bewilderment to demonstrated dismay. This bold work was just too long, too dark, too foreboding, to metaphysical to be received favourably by a musical culture dizzy from singing along to ‘Sweet City Woman’ by The Stampeders (released at almost the same time.) Even so-called ‘progressive’ FM stations in Canada only gave the album token airplay (and usually in the middle of the night) and then backed off entirely obviously intimidated by the intense, introverted, brooding stance of the LP. It may seem trite in this post-modern, post-punk, post-alternative music world, but the following excerpts from Bryden’s liner notes to the 1990 Laser’s Edge release of the CD further illuminate the story of what it was like to be genuinely ‘aternative’ in the mid 70’s:
‘Yesterday, I drove to Toronto and picked up the first completely finished copies of ‘Lies To Live By’. Hard to believe that after two full years of struggle, delay and seemingly endless waiting, the album is finally in my hands – and a handsome package it is, too. I am filled with pride and thankfulness. What an incredible adventure the whole thing has been. Who knows what the future holds for us all…’
-Journal Entry, Wed. Dec. 11, 1974
….there is virtually nothing I would alter concerning ‘Lies’. (A rare statement, I think, from a musician.) It was and still is a work of which I am unreservedly pleased. Artistically, it’s very existence almost justifies the struggles the band endured to complete it. Of one thing I have absolutely no doubt, ‘Lies’ is miles beyond the slightest hint of compromise. The fact that it was far beyond the ken of radio music programmers at the time of release is just another sad commentary on the eternal war non-commercial musicians must wage to get their music heard….
….’Lies’ was conceived and executed as a unified, symphonic work. It has a prevailing seriousness and musical complexity that defies traditional song structure. Lyrically, it is an often grim and foreboding journey, which does however end on a note of triumph:
‘Together we shall ride
Where the gods will send,
In the flaming eyes of dawn
To our lofty deeds attend’.
A record company press sheet which accompanying the release called it ‘absolutely and unquestionably the most progressive album of contemporary music ever released in Canada’.
Despite the record company’s sincere and passionate confidence ‘Lies To Live By’ failed to make any money. Given this final blow, the band could not recover. After five full years of making every attempt not to compromise creative integrity, it was clear that no one was listening. Shortly after ‘Lies’ release, Rich Richter left the band to be temporarily replaced by Toronto drummer Frank Russell. Christmas, or The Spirit of Christmas, officially and completely disbanded in early 1975.
Bryden immediately hit the road and began hitchhiking and backpacking across Canada eventually settling in Hamilton, Ontario where he managed a record store; produced punk records; recorded and toured with punk band Benzene Jag; recorded two albums with new wave band Age of Mirrors (under the pseudonym Simon De Beaupre); joined the ministry; left the ministry; found missing footage from John Wayne’s ‘The Alamo’ and eventually recorded three solo albums, the latest one ‘Polaroid Verite’ released in 2007. His whole story can be found at www.bobbryden.com
Robert Bulger has had a long and successful career as a guitar instructor at Humber College in Toronto and also as a multi-faceted sideman gigging all around the area with a particularly strong bent toward jazz.
Tyler Raizenne has never put down his instrument and maintains himself by working at a factory in Oshawa and producing and gigging as much as he can.
Rich Richter became a Christian and has spent many years playing drums in local churches. His kids are all very talented musicans as well.
The original members of Christmas all still have their chops.
Preston Wynn visited Bryden at his record store in the late 70’s. Recent reports indicate Wynn is still playing music in the Whitby area and studying Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. (Something Bryden had also done for many years.)
In 2006, Bryden was approached by Toronto neo-psych-rockers The Saffron Sect to do a tribute to Reign Ghost and Christmas. The Saffron Sect backed Bryden on a series of now legendary gigs in Hamilton and Toronto entitled: ‘A Reign Ghost/Christmas Revival by Bob Bryden and The Saffron Sect’. (A DVD with camera audio only is available of a Toronto set and all the shows were recorded multi-track will be made available in the future.)
Spurred on by the interest in the band engendered by the Saffron Sect shows, Christmas attempted a reunion in 2008. Sadly, musical and personal differences proved too great to sustain the reunion and the band broke up yet again.
The lesson being, I suppose, that some things in the past are best left there - except for the things that remain. And what remains – is the story – and the records. ‘Heritage’ and ‘Lies To Live By’ are, by all accounts, records that stand the test of time. The albums are so vastly different from each other that opinion is solidly polarized. There are those who say ‘Heritage’ is the greatest album ever made in Canada and there are those who say the same of ‘Lies’. What can be said for certain is that these records have made an impact over time and this is very rewarding to the musicians who made them.
As interest in the collectability of Christmas LP’s escalates among music lovers the world over, let us hope that ‘The Spirit’ of Christmas will never be forgotten but kindled afresh with every new generation of music devotees.
-Jay S. Wraggs