Artist Spotlight: Mannheim Steamroller

What the hell is a Mannheim Steamroller? We’ll get to this band’s punny denotative meaning, but I can tell you right now what it connotes. It’s a faceless synthesizer juggernaut that turns Christmas carols into ’80s New Age ear-blasters, and proves, through its millions upon millions of record sales, that your ideas of “taste” and “class” simply do not exist.

But hear me out. As usual, the Spotlight reveals some amusing and unexpected fun facts lurking in the life of even the most odious of musical acts. For your sake, I’ll keep it brief.

The man behind Mannheim Steamroller is named Chip Davis, and he got his start writing advertising jingles in the 1970s. One of his clients was Old Home Bread. Davis’s creative director, Bill Fries, invented a trucker named C.W. McCall to appear in multiple commercials for this product, for which Davis wrote the jingles.

In one of those weird things that happen for no reason, McCall—despite not, in any sense, being a real person—became a popular country musician. Fries performed songs written by Davis using the McCall persona: first on a single, then an album, then more albums. He had several hits, including 1976’s “Convoy,” which reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, inspired the Sam Peckinpah(!) movie of the same name, and allegedly sold more than 10 million copies.

Beat that, Don Draper.

Around the same time that Davis was writing songs for a television commercial come to life, he was also recording New Age music and releasing it on his own label, called American Gramaphone, a pun on noted German classical label Deutsche Grammophon. The fact that no major label would release Davis’s stuff, recorded under the name Mannheim Steamroller, did not dissuade him from self-releasing five albums between 1975 and 1983. Allmusic says the Fresh Aire records, as Davis called them, were popular as demo recordings for audio systems, because of their “inoffensive high-mindedness” and dynamic range. I can certainly imagine hearing this in the stereo department of a Circuit City around 1981.

Davis relied on Julliard-educated pianist Jackson Berkey to play keyboard on these records, since he realized the music he’d composed went well beyond his own skills to play. The two of them came up with the name Mannheim Steamroller, which is a pun on Mannheim Roller, an orchestral technique popularized by composers of the 18th Century Mannheim School. It’s a musical riff where the bass note is held out while the higher voices move up, typically in an arpeggio, while crescendoing.

I could find an example of this in a classical recording, but you are more likely to recognize the Mannheim Roller’s modern-day descendant in the vocal break of “Twist and Shout.”

That’s right, the Beatles invented Mannheim Steamroller. I knew John was a jerk, but only now did I learn the true depths of his reign of terror.

Anyway, this harmless New Age band would have remained a footnote in self-released LP history had they not come upon the idea of recording a Christmas album. Cleverly titled Christmas, it featured mostly Renaissance-style versions of traditional holiday songs, like “We Three Kings,” in which the melody is played on English horn and recorder.

What they’re really known for, though, are the synthplosions.

That one’s got it all: bleep-bloopy patches, pointless stereo pans, impossible glissandos, obnoxious pitch bending, dramatic suspended chords, and a childish drum loop. Kavinsky probably creamed himself the first time he heard it.

This record hit No. 50 on the charts and sold six million copies in the U.S. alone, forever altering your local shopping mall’s holiday soundtrack. Davis, ever the businessman, knew he had a replicable success, and set about turning Mannheim Steamroller into a Christmas music machine. Over the next 20 years, the band would release seven more studio Christmas albums, in addition to three new entries in the Fresh Aire series, other themed collections like a record of patriotic songs, and compilation albums linking the Steamroller with McCall and Davis himself.

But here’s the thing about machines, be they SkyNet, Deep Blue, or Mannheim Steamroller: they have no souls. By now, the band has evolved into a naked cash grab, with no pretense at all of musical vision or raison d’être. Over the last ten years, Davis and company have released three Christmas studio albums and a whopping 16 Christmas compilations, live albums, and box sets.

Meanwhile, the band has remained so anonymous, it has two touring versions—in order to play twice as many holiday gigs—with hired guns subbing in for Davis, Berkey, and the others as needed. Mannheim Steamroller is perhaps the only act that has had a laser light show projected on a screen at the front of the stage, though they eventually moved it to the back like a normal band. Still, why should they care if the audience can’t see them? It’s probably not any of their original members playing.

It was inevitable that Mannheim Steamroller would get around to covering the “Hallelujah chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, classical music’s most bloated oratorio. Their version sounds like Vangelis and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber scored the Main Street Electrical Parade on Dec. 24. Artist’s interpretation:


The above recording is from 2001’s Christmas Extraordinaire, which I want to single out as an example of Mannheim Steamroller’s avarice. The album includes a version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” one of the few songs on any of these records whose copyright is still owned by someone. That meant Davis had to fork over a sum of money to record the song, both up front and on the back end in the form of songwriter’s royalties. I don’t know if that’s why he used a synth choir instead of actual singers on the album version of this song, but I do know that, based on musicians’ union scale from 15 years ago, he could have booked a 28-person choir for two hours and paid less than $10,000 to do so. Instead, he cut costs and went with the shitty synth, after his last three Christmas albums sold a combined 12+ million copies.

Not much more to say here, except that I listened to eight Mannheim Steamroller albums so that you didn’t have to. I’d appreciate your upvotes, here in my own personal hell. Or, you could listen to this, the worst version of “Jingle Bells” I have ever heard, and that includes the one with the barking dogs.