Paul O’Neill and his Trans-Siberian Orchestra will be a fixture at Christmas every year for the next 30 years. Atlantic Records has told him so.
O’Neill wrote, produced and played rhythm guitar on the orchestra’s 1996 debut album, “Christmas Eve and Other Stories” (Lava/Atlantic). The album, combining Broadway-style rock opera with traditional holiday melodies, caught O’Neill and the label by surprise, selling out its lone shipment of more than 150,000 copies. This season, Atlantic was prepared: It relaunched the album in November and projects it to sell more than 200,000 copies a week through Christmas … and many more in the years to come.
That’s music to O’Neill’s ears, especially since the album tells the moving story of a man praying for his lost child and finding an angel of mercy. The message has touched thousands of listeners who have written O’Neill to thank him.
“There are some that break your heart,” the native New Yorker said. “I got one from a father who hadn’t talked to his daughter in years; he heard the album and started to cry. He went to another city, about 100 miles away, found her and they got back together.
“We got a letter from somebody in Oklahoma who was thinking of killing himself, and he heard the album, said it made him stop and think. When you get those kinds of things, it’s better than any other reward in the industry. It’s better than money, it’s better than radio play. It makes it all worthwhile.”
The most widely played track, the instrumental “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” first appeared on an album called “Dead Winter Dead” by the Tampa rock group Savatage. O’Neill has produced several of the group’s albums and composed many of its conceptual pieces. Savatage’s version did so well at radio in early 1996, O’Neill said, he brain-stormed over a rock opera based solely on Christmas.
“When you write any album, it’s a challenge,” O’Neill said, “because you’re trying to compete with the best musicians out there, the legends of the time, be they Elton John, Billy Joel or Led Zeppelin.
“But when you’re making a Christmas album, the past 400 years of musicianship is the competition. A lot of these classic Christmas songs were written by Mendelssohn, Mozart, Beethoven. It’s very intimidating, so what we wanted to do was take the best of the old songs and rearrange them so they sounded fresh and combine them with new songs.”
O’Neill expects to transform the story into a theater production next year or by 1999.
“The only problem is that I would have to leave the studio,” O’Neill said, “and there’s going to be two more Trans-Siberian albums next year if I can get them finished, a regular rock opera and another Christmas opera, so it’s going to be a crazy, crazy year.”
BWF (before we forget): For more on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, visit www.trans-siberian.com.