In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
The Chipmunks & David Seville- “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”
HIT #1: December 22, 1958
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
When Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” hit #1 in December last year, many of us who pay attention to the charts noticed it was only the second time in the over 60 year history of the Billboard Hot 100 that a Christmas song had made it to the top spot. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the very first Christmas that the Hot 100 existed in to get that other Christmas song at #1.
Unfortunately, unlike Mariah’s song, that other Christmas song happens to be an insufferable piece of shit novelty record that probably owed its success more to an embarrassing fad than anything holiday-related.
The voices on “The Chipmunk Song” are all the work of one man: Ross Bagdasarian. After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Bagdasarian began making his way through the entertainment business as an industry songwriter and minor actor with high points that included writing the Rosemary Clooney 1951 hit “Come On-a My House” and a role in the Alfred Hitchcock 1954 classic Rear Window. After signing with Liberty Records in 1955, Bagdasarian began releasing music under the stage name David Seville but wasn’t hitting at first.
Looking for a way to break through, Bagdasarian began playing around with the speed control on a tape recorder he bought speeding up his voice to a higher pitch than normal. He then used this discovery to create “Witch Doctor,” another stupid novelty song where normal voiced Bagdasarian is singing with his higher-pitched self. “Witch Doctor,” released under David Seville, became a massive seller hitting #1 on the charts in the pre-Hot 100 era of 1958.
Naturally after “Witch Doctor” became a hit, a follow-up was inevitable. Further capitalizing on his discovery of high pitch sped-up vocals, Bagdasarian came up with the idea about a trio of mischievous chipmunks named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore that he would voice all himself. The names were all from the real names of Liberty Record executives and Alvin was inspired by one of Bagdasarian’s son always asking if it’s Christmas yet. From there, Alvin & The Chipmunks (then known as the Chipmunks) were born with “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” being their first release.
Before I get into the song, I should mention that as weird as it seems now, “The Chipmunk Song” was an honest to God smash in 1958. Critic Chris Molanphy noted the song was the fastest-selling record of the year selling about 2.5 million copies in a month. It was even nominated for Record of the Year at the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1959. (Given their nominations this week, it’s good to know that the Grammys have always been crap.) 1958 was also the year where another sped up novelty track, Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater,” became another smash hit hitting #1 shortly after “Witch Doctor” on the pre-Hot 100 charts. American listeners apparently couldn’t get enough of sped up voiced novelty songs.
All of this is getting off from the main point which is that “The Chipmunk Song” sucks big time. There is a nice twangy quality in the guitar that shows up in the middle but everything else about the production is a flat nothing of a song. But all of this is secondary to the actual performances. Stereogum’s Tom Breihan made a good point in his review of the song that from a technical standpoint it’s pretty amazing. Bagdasarian pulled off his voice trick in a pre-electronic era of production where he had to record each voice and put all the tracks together from different tapes to create the song. That’s something to appreciate. Doesn’t make the song any good.
Hearing these high pitched voices is nails on a chalkboard levels of annoyance. It makes you want to do something more painful to get away from this atrocity to the ears. Hearing Alvin scream “OKAY!” is enough to startle the living daylights out of me. I can’t imagine how record buyers and listeners at the time could tolerate this sound. Maybe the fact that it was such a new sound made it appealing to so many and after all novelty records could do big business on the charts in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. But even with that context, I can’t stand a second of these voices. If I had to hear this song in any public setting, I’d find the nearest hiding place to get away from it.
Despite being #1 around Christmas and having Christmas in the title, nothing much about “The Chipmunk Song” feels Christmasy. No mentions of snow or Santa Claus. There’s no sleigh bells or chimes or other musical tropes you’d expect in holiday songs. There isn’t much to the song lyrically. It’s essentially a showcase for the new Chipmunks franchise with normal voiced Bagdasarian as the Chipmunks owner David Seville getting Simon, Theodore, and Alvin together to sing the song with Alvin getting distracted all the time. When singing, the Chipmunks express how excited they are for Christmas and the gifts they want which include a plane that loops and a hula hoop.
Maybe it’s that not too Christmasy approach that explains why “The Chipmunk Song” managed to have staying power after the holidays staying at #1 into mid-January. And maybe it explains why until Mariah Carey’s song, “The Chipmunk Song” was the only Christmas song to hit #1. Its popularity had less to do with the fact that it was a Christmas song and more because sped up novelty tracks were all the rage in 1958.
The phenomenon of the Chipmunks continued after “The Chipmunk Song.” One more of their songs made the Top 10 in 1959 with “Alvin’s Harmonica,” another insufferable novelty trifle where Alvin is distracted by his harmonica. It wound up peaking at #3. (It’s a 1.) After that, Bagdasarian continued to milk Alvin & The Chipmunks for all its worth continually releasing singles and albums and producing a short-lived cartoon show Alvin’s World that aired for a season in the early ‘60s. Can’t find much else about Bagdasarian but his Wikipedia page noted he bought a California winery company in the mid-’60s. In January 1972, Bagdasarian died of a heart attack a couple of weeks before turning 53.
Bagdasarian may be long gone but his franchise has remained lucrative. There was a long-running animated show in the ‘80s Saturday morning cartoon show Alvin & The Chipmunks first featuring its now more famous name putting Alvin’s name up front. And for people of my generation, Alvin & The Chipmunks are better known for the CGI movie franchise that spawned four critically panned but financially successful movies released from 2007 to 2015. I guess people will always have an appetite for high pitched misbehaving chipmunks. I don’t get these things sometimes.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” playing over the opening credits in 2000’s Almost Famous:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” soundtracking a Christmas party flashback scene in a 2001 episode of The Sopranos:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here are some scenes from 2007’s Alvin and the Chipmunks where the title characters sing “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late):”
(Jesse McCartney, who voices Theodore, peaked at #10 with 2008’s “Leavin’,” it’s a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 2017’s The Fate of the Furious where “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” soundtracks an intense airplane fight scene as Vin Diesel has his baby listen to the song:
(The Fast and the Furious franchise will eventually appear in the Ones of the ‘10s.)