After doing a few interviews about this song (see the stories on the Press page), I combined writers' questions and added a couple more here, conducting an interview with myself, as it were, answering questions hopefully more succinctly or interestingly than I did in actual interviews.
Tell about the song.
The song is called “Santa Came Too Soon” and is about the problems associated with Santa Claus arriving too early for Christmas. There are many songs that lament Santa arriving too late or having to cancel Christmas altogether, songs like, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Year Without a Santa Claus” and “Christmas Don’t Be Late (The Chipmunk Song).” But there were few or none that talk about Santa arriving too early. This song addresses that shortcoming.
How did you come up with the idea?
It came from listening to songs about Santa having to cancel Christmas and looking at it in a contrarian way. OK, you’ve got songs about Santa arriving too late, how about one about him arriving too early? I wondered: Wouldn’t that be a problem, too?
But wait a second: Santa Came Too Soon. Does that have more than one meaning?
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Well, OK. Let’s just say that Dr. Demento, when he aired the song on his radio show, called the song, “a masterful double entendre.” And as someone who’s had a national radio show about funny music for nearly half a century, Dr. Demento has seen hundreds of pairs of double entendres, so he knows what he’s talking about, (if you know what I mean).
(Raises and lowers eyebrows suggestively, taps ashes off the end of imaginary cigar.)
Yes, so I wrote it in a way that could be taken entirely innocently—but it could also be heard in a completely different way, depending on whether or not your mind is in the gutter.
So, in other words, this song may not be everyone’s cup of tea. You may not want to play this for your particular aunt. (Or for my particular aunts.)
Tell a little about yourself.
I’m a native of the Columbus Junction area (in southeast Iowa), graduated from Columbus Community High School, went to the University of Iowa, graduating with a degree in journalism and communications. I worked as a reporter for several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois, including my hometown Columbus Gazette, the Muscatine Journal and The Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune. After leaving newspapers, I continued writing columns for papers and helped write a book and sell it to a publisher. That was “Old Man River & Me,” by Mark Knudsen of Des Moines with me as a ghost writer, editor and sort-of agent. I’ve been a stay-home dad to my two sons, who are now 20 and 22 and in college. I live in the Des Moines, Iowa, suburb of Urbandale with my wife, Susan.
Tell about writing the song, when did you start, how long did it take?
I had the idea for the song a few years ago, but didn’t do anything with it. I thought about it each Christmas, but when the season passed, so did any thought of working on it. Finally, in 2017, I just decided to get down to work and see if I could get it done.
While I’ve been a writer most of my life, I don’t have a lot of experience writing songs. My brother and my friends and I would write and sing parody songs and a few originals when were in our teens and 20s. But it had been a long time since then.
I wrote it over the course of a few weeks in November and December in 2017. I decided to try to record a video of myself performing the song to put up on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, just to get it out there, just to give friends and family a chance to see it. I finally finished that a little more than week before Christmas in 2017—and I kind of figured that was that.
But the feedback I got from people was, “What are you going to do with this next?”
I really wasn’t sure. There were only a few days before Christmas 2017, so I couldn’t really do much last year. There just wasn’t enough time.
This year, I kept thinking about it. What will I do next? I toyed with the idea of turning the song into an illustrated book in the style of a children’s book—but this one would be aimed more at adults. Each line of lyric would be illustrated and it showed a too-excited Santa arriving too early, which upset a couple who were not prepared for Christmas. Santa meanwhile flails around in oblivious, exuberant joy, gulping down cartons of egg nog and spilling and spewing the creamy liquid everywhere. I actually turned an excerpt of one of the illustrations I created into the art cover for the song—that’s the one of Santa dancing along the peak of the rooftop, spilling gifts out of his bag and squeezing his eggnog carton so excitedly that eggnog is shooting high into the air.
That illustrated book project is ongoing.
As autumn rolled around this year, I dusted off the song and decided to do a more formal recording of it, still not entirely sure what I would do with it. Like a lot of this project, I found myself doing a lot of things I’d never done before and I had to learn by doing. I gradually figured out how to record and mix eight separate tracks to make it sound like I was a five- or six-person band. There were two vocal tracks, a guitar finger-picked track, a guitar strum/rhythm track, a bass guitar track, two “pipe organ” tracks and a sleigh bells track. I worked on that in October and then was pleased enough with the result that I wanted to find a way to share this. In learning how to do the project up to this point, I stumbled across people who were doing the same things and learned how they were able to offer their music for sale on major download and streaming services—Apple iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Google Play, Spotify, etc. And I figured, if they had done it, I could try it, too.
A lot of research later, I signed up with CD Baby, a company that would not only make my music available for sale on their site but would make it available on many other major sites. An official release date of Nov. 15 was set for my song. Within days, a download of my song was available as a pre-order on Amazon Music.
Then I said, well, I’ve gone to this trouble, let’s send it to Dr. Demento.
Tell about Dr. Demento and how you got the song on his show.
Dr. Demento, whose real name is Barret Hansen, began playing comedy music on the radio nearly 50 years ago. His nationally syndicated show was in its heyday when I was a teenager in the 1980s and he helped bring “Weird Al” Yankovic to national prominence at the time, with parody songs like “Another One Rides the Bus,” “Yoda” and “Eat It.” Dr. Demento plays a wide variety of styles of funny music going all the way back to early days of recording, through early country, blues, rock and up through R&B and rap. His show is still around on the internet these days.
My friends and I listened to his show when we were teens and he was frankly, kind of a hero to us—weird kids that we were. He played songs by some of my other heroes—the Smothers Brothers, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Tom Lehrer and Larry Groce. My friend and I even sent him cassette tapes of parody songs we recorded, including “The Meltdown Song,” (a parody of the Greg Kihn Band’s “Breakup Song”) and “They Are in Heat,” (a parody of the Go-Go’s “We’ve Got the Beat”). He didn’t play our songs.
But I thought I might try again to send Dr. Demento a song after a 30-some year hiatus. A couple of days after mailing him a CD, he emailed me thanks and encouragement. He didn’t say whether he was going to play it, which made me think, “Well, he’s not going to play it.” I knew the odds could be slim because this was a Christmas song and there are thousands and thousands of funny Christmas songs and only a short window of a few possible weeks in which to fit all of them. And you’re not going to push aside an all-time classic like the dogs barking “Jingle Bells” to play something new and untested.
But then only a couple of days later, I got another email from Dr. Demento telling me he played my song on his show.
One thing that was working strongly in my favor was that it was very early, still about seven weeks before Christmas—plus, my song was about Santa arriving too early. What better song to kick off the busy Christmas season on his Nov. 3 show? I especially love the way he introduced it. He played another classic demented Christmas song from 2003 before mine, “I Want Some Plastic Surgery for Christmas,” which is a parody of another old novelty song from 1953, “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.” After the song ended, he did this segue:
“Was that too early to play a Christmas song? Well, maybe. But consider this: We depend on Santa Claus to come at a specific time, to arrive simultaneously at every house in our time zone. But sometimes his smartphone clock malfunctions or something and Santa comes too soon. Here’s a new song by Shawn Plank.”
And after playing the song, he came back and did an outro: “‘Santa Came Too Soon,’ a masterful double entendre by Shawn Plank of Urbandale, Iowa.”
Well, for me, that was the ultimate. That was the icing on the cake. That was the eggnog shooting uncontrollably from the carton.
It was very rewarding to simply work on the song and write it. It was rewarding to figure out the technical challenges of making the video and audio recordings. It was very rewarding when family and friends gave their feedback on the song.
But Dr. Demento was a teenage hero of mine. It was so rewarding to be recognized and to be treated so generously like that by someone who has meant that much to me.
Even better, on Dr. Demento’s Dec. 1 show, “Santa Came Too Soon” was voted as one of the top 10 songs from the show during November, and was played again.
How long have you been writing funny music?
I’ve been a semi-closeted funny music writer off and on probably all my life. My younger brother, Andy, introduced me to the guitar when I was 14 or so. In high school, friends and I would write songs and parody songs.
Much later, I wrote about 12 verses of new lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a lullaby to my oldest son, which mostly dealt with his unpredictable bodily functions as an infant. This is probably why he’s still not asleep as a 22 year old.
But I’ve never done anything like this before—writing, performing, recording and marketing a song. So there is a lot of blindly feeling my way.
What was the hardest part of this project?
There were a lot unexpected challenges along the way, but I’d say the hardest part was getting the song to the download and streaming services and working to secure my rights as a songwriter. Working to secure the rights is like buying an insurance policy against the unlikely event that the song becomes hugely popular and someone famous covers it and it sells a jillion copies.
Also, doing self-promotion for this is difficult personally. I hate to be a jerk blowing my own horn. But I also have been a reporter and worked organizing events and doing fundraising. I believe this project is worthy and I need to get the word out and I have a little knowledge and experience about how to do that. I usually don’t do it for myself though. And that’s a little uncomfortable.
When I was a reporter, people frequently showed up at the newspaper offices with manufactured hype and shameless promotion. Usually, they came into have a picture of themselves taken with their large vegetables they grew. I was always taken aback by these people and their audacity, their lack of modesty, their seeming lust for public recognition.
This promotional effort kind of feels like I’m bringing my large vegetable in to the newspaper office and I’m a little uncomfortable about it, but I hope my calling attention to it like this is worth your time.
And of course, if I don’t say anything, no one else will. So as Frank Sinatra says, “I tell ya chum, it’s time to come blow your horn.”
What are your goals for this song? What do you hope to achieve?
My goals for this song are very modest.
I want nothing more than to supplant “White Christmas” as the main holiday song.
Once established, no one will remember who Binge Crosby was. What is his name? I’ve already forgotten. Binge? That doesn’t sound like a name.
After that, I’m looking to get the song added to church hymnals.
But really, if there were a fantasy goal I would have for the song: I’d like it to be covered and recorded by a prominent female artist. I think the tone of the song would suit a female singer better, something with an overtly flirtatious but good-natured tone. Perhaps something done in the spirit of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” I can imagine Dolly Parton covering it—that would be cool. But as a prolific writer, she’s got plenty of songs of her own.
Would Santa arriving too early really be a problem?
After hearing the song, some have said they actually wouldn’t mind if Santa arrived early. They say it would benefit them because then they’d get their gifts quicker.
But let me just say this: You don’t rush into Christmas. You don’t dash out wildly grabbing at anything and bring it home and quickly rip into it without thinking. It’s not a one-night thing. It can’t be over that fast. Rapid gratification of desires is not rewarding. Christmas is something that needs to be prepared for and savored and relished over time.
It’s a slow dance. It’s a game of prolonged expectation-building. The period of excitement and preparation in advance is just as important as the event itself. In fact, it’s more important, because you need that gradual buildup to slowly intensify to make the payoff in the end all the more momentous and all the more satisfying.
So you don’t want Santa to come too soon.
You make reference to other traditional Christmas songs and stories here, right?
Yes. A lot of Christmas songs use snippets of melody from other Christmas songs, almost to hit you bluntly over the head so that you don’t forget you’re listening to a Christmas song. Mine is no different.
It happens so much in Christmas music that I wondered if there were an official musical term for playing a musical phrase of one Christmas song in another Christmas song. For example, in Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song,” the phrase from “Jingle Bells” is played at the end. Similarly, in Stan Freberg’s “Green Chri$tma$,” a 1958 musical satire on the over-commercialization of the holiday, “Jingle Bells” plays at the end, but in a haunting minor key, as though all is not well.
I still don’t know if there’s an official name for these quotations of Christmas song phrases, so I just call them “quotations.”
There are two obvious musical quotations in my song, in which the melody of a well-known Christmas song, hymn or carol is played—“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles).” Other candidates for quotations as I was writing the song were “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You note the commonality in all these songs to “Santa Came Too Soon,” right? (If not, it will come to you.) Turns out, the songs I chose to quote from were in the public domain while the other two that I didn’t use were still copyrighted, which would have caused myself a hassle to legally use them, even just to use a phrase of them.
I do make oblique reference to some lyrics in “Here Comes Santa Claus,” but did not use the melody of the song. The actual lyrics are “So jump in bed and cover your head,’cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” I make reference to those in the lyric: “Cover up your head and jump in bed, Santa came too soon.”
I also make a few references to phrases and ideas in “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as the “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem.
The line “He arose such a clatter but it really doesn’t matter” comes from the couplet in the poem: “When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.”
The line, “He loses control at the sight of the breast of the new fallen snow,” is spun out of this couplet in the poem: “The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave the luster of mid-day to objects below.”
And finally, the fact that Santa says “Happy Christmas!” in the song comes directly from the fact in the poem Santa says, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.” Note: It’s not “Merry Christmas,” which seems to be an American contrivance that has been tied up in so much political baggage lately, that it becomes disagreeable to use. “Happy Christmas,” despite it being used in this poem from 1823, seems more fresh and novel. It seems gentler and frankly, more natural—we don’t wish anyone a “merry” holiday of any other kind, it’s always just “happy” (for example, “Happy Birthday” or “Happy New Year!”). And if you’re into that kind of thing, “Happy Christmas” seems more British, something the Beatles said in their recorded Christmas greetings from the 1960s, so something way cooler.
There’s no repeating chorus in this song is there?
No. The song title is repeated in some form at the end of each of the four verses, but there’s no repeating chorus. One reason is I couldn’t come up with a good one. Another reason is sometimes in novelty songs like this, if a writer has one good idea and repeats it over and over again in the form of a chorus, you get tired of it quickly, perhaps before the song is even half-finished. I figured rather than repeating something over and over within a song, I would encourage listeners to hear the entire song over and over by limiting repeating lyrics.
The downside of that, though, is there is no easily recognizable chorus or hook that people can remember and sing as they walk down the street. I’m hoping the upside is a more listenable, evergreen track that people will want to hear again and again. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” was a great novelty song when it first came out and that repeated chorus helped sell the song and make it widely recognizable. But that constant chorus repetition—and the dreaded key change to sing the chorus one more time—kills its repeated listenability.
Originally, the first bridge of “Santa Came Too Soon” was going to be a chorus, but repeated only once more:
Santa comes just once a year, making every dream assured.
But when he gets too anxious, he can come quite premature.
But as I wrote the song, I came up with other lyrics for the second bridge, so abandoned the idea of the repeating chorus. Those lyrics are:
Santa keeps a calendar but has no knack for dates.
All year long it’s, “Happy Christmas!” he exclaims (or ejaculates).
I am slated to play the song on a local radio station and the DJ has told me that the song is fine, except I can’t sing “ejaculates” on the air. Yep, I get that. While the word does mean two things, it more often means the seamier thing rather than the more innocent thing. I am pretty sure some people don’t even know that it also means “to say suddenly,” so they don’t even see it as a double entendre here. Plus, the word has those hard “j” and “k” sounds and contains the word “jack” in it, which just sounds dirty.
So this required a little creativity, which crazily enough, worked well. I rewrote the lyric for the radio to this:
Santa has an issue that some of you have mocked.
He can’t hold back, he can’t wait, so sometimes goes off half-cocked.
I almost like that lyric better than the original. Going off half-cocked can mean both a gun firing before being ready or doing something hastily or poorly prepared. And of course, “half-cocked” has an imagery in the spirit of the song. (A check of Urban Dictionary shows the word has some interesting and related slang meanings.)
But the one thing I liked about the original lyrics in the bridges is that the first bridge ends with the word “premature” and the second bridge ends with the word “ejaculates” (both challenging words to find workable rhymes for). Plus, the song sort of stops in both places to allow both of those concepts to soak in, as it were.
It’s hard to believe “half-cocked” is OK for radio and “ejaculates” is not. But if it turns out that I can’t say either “ejaculates” or “half-cocked” on the radio, I do have substitute lyrics on stand-by:
Santa is a good man, I don’t want to diss his flaws.
But now I know just what it’s like each night for Mrs. Claus.
Or one other:
There are lots of words we use when man reaches his pinnacle.
Some are bad and some are fine and some are way too clinical.
So, to answer the original question, no, there is no repeating chorus. I repeat, no, there is no repeating chorus.
—Shawn Plank, December 18, 2018