The story behind 'Christmas Wrapping'

"Christmas Wrapping," by The Waitresses, CD cover

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: You might have seen that movie a few years ago called "About A Boy." Hugh Grant plays a cad who's living off royalties from an insipid Christmas song his dad wrote about a rocket-powered sleigh. Seems Santa needed a little something extra under the hood to make his appointed gift-giving rounds.

Nate DiMeo has the story of a real life holiday semi-classic and how it's brought more than 20 years of Christmas bonuses to its reluctant writer.


NATE DIMEO: Chris Butler isn't the kind of guy who TiVo's "It's a Wonderful Life."

CHRIS BUTLER: I am the Scrooge. I do have a t-shirt that says, "Jump George Bailey, jump."

And in August of 1981, Christmas was the last thing on Butler's mind. He'd just moved to New York from the Midwest in search of respectable obscurity as an avant-garde musician in the big city. He was a fixture at the dirtiest clubs and the most secret loft parties. He was broke. Things were going great. But then, he says, it all went wrong.

BUTLER: I had really messed up and I had written a catchy little tune I was too embarrassed for any of the bands I was in to play, and they agreed.

Soon, Chris and his new band called The Waitresses were touring trying to push his minor radio hit further up the charts when the head of their avant-garde label came up with an idea.

BUTLER: Since irony ruled in that era, our record company executive came in and said, 'Oh Chris, oh Chris, I have a wonderful idea. I'm going to make a Christmas Album with all of our artists.'

Holiday friendly artists like, Suicide and Lydia Lunch.

BUTLER: And so, they were going to make a Christmas album with these cranks and weirdos.

But you know? Butler nailed it.

Over the course of a few summer days, Chris Butler wrote a surprisingly sweet take on the more-than-occasional misery of the modern holiday season.

"Chistmas Wrapping" tells story of young urbanite decides who she's just too busy to deal with the parties and presents, she's going to have Christmas alone this year. But after a year filled with missed connections and charming mishaps -- a Christmas miracle.

Even a self-described grinch like Butler kind of liked it. And when the song started popping up on the radio that winter, he liked the royalty checks.

BUTLER: This song, it's loved by a lot of people. However, it's not "Born to be Wild." That's an annuity. "Christmas Wrapping" allows me to get, you know, two toppings on my pizza instead of just pepperoni.

A little more than that. A 45-second snippet played in a bar scene in a movie might earn him as much as $30,000. The whole song in hit movie with a hit soundtrack could end up pulling in well over $100,000. That could've happened with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. After their breakup, the producers of their movie "Jersey Girl" decided to cut a lot of JLo's scenes out -- including one set to the tune of "Christmas Wrapping."

BUTLER: If they had just stayed together one more month...

But we shouldn't worry about Chris' financial health too much. Royalties have allowed Chris to continue to stay comfortably in the world of the avant garde. He's in the Guinness Book of World Records for writing the longest pop song, which clocks in at 69 minutes. And he spends a lot of his time recording songs like this with no electricity, using wire recorders and Edison wax cylinders.

He owes much of that freedom to this cover version of "Christmas Wrapping" by the Spice Girls.

BUTLER: That really messes your mind up because, on the one hand, you're thinking that, you know, I am such the artist. On the other hand you're like, ka-ching! It's taken years of therapy to sort that out.

So the song will go back into hibernation in a few days, and Butler will starting watching the mailbox to see what his Christmas bonus will be this year. After 20 years, he says, it's not just check. Every year the song comes back and taps him on the shoulder, and reminds him that something he wrote has made a lot of people happy. But there's one thing that would make the season brighter.

BUTLER: Any gung-ho executive out there who hears these, please remember that 'Grandma Got Runover By a Sleigh' or whatever was made into a half-an-hour TV special, "Christmas Wrapping" has not been made into a half-an-hour TV special. It's ripe opportunity, it's a great urban love story with ironies and twists galore. I think we need to talk.

This is Nate DiMeo for Marketplace.

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