The History of the Beatles’ Christmas Records
"Wonderful Christmastime" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" tend to get all the airplay, but the Beatles were releasing Christmas records before anyone in the U.S. knew who they were.
The group started making them way back in 1963, as bonus item for members of its fan club. But they weren't the radio-friendly songs that Paul McCartney and John Lennon scored with years later as solo artists. They were spoken-word messages with bits of holiday songs thrown in.
The records were eventually collected on a semi-official album, but these rarities -- which were originally sent out as flexi-discs -- provide a map to the way the members' relationships and their music changed over the years. More than likely designed to shore up their image as wholesome pop stars, the annual Christmas records underscore the Beatles' blithe embrace of the subversive and, at least initially, their brotherhood. After the split came far more popular, and tuneful, seasonal items from each of the members. We take a look at them all in our History of the Beatles' Christmas Records.
Unlike later entries in our History of the Beatles’ Christmas Records, the band is obviously together in the studio as it serenades Ringo Starr by cheekily inserting his name into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Given a bunch of straight lines by their public-relations man Tony Barrow -- to go with a series of old-fashioned conceits, like covering "Good King Wenceslas" -- the Beatles rebel. Maybe it's just a wink and nudge, but it's rebelling all the same.
As the Beatles finally gained traction in the U.S., their still-resonant public personas were already in place. You have Paul McCartney, trying desperately to follow the rules. ("Don't know where we'd be without you, really,” he tells the fans.) John Lennon, meanwhile, consistently nudges him toward Yuletide chicanery. ("In the army, probably," he quips.) And they've grown confident enough by now to openly mock the whole enterprise, specifically referencing -- and then misreading -- the provided script.
As they moved into the complexities of Rubber Soul, the now politically aware Beatles reference the ongoing conflict in Vietnam during what should have been a straightforward reading of "Auld Lang Syne." That's not to say there aren't plenty of laughs in their 1965 offering. "Yesterday" is presented with a series of loose, a cappella takes throughout, and Lennon performs a song titled "Happy Christmas to Ya List'nas."
The Beatles spent most of the 1966 edition of their Christmas record fooling around with studio effects in the run-up to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas" was, in fact, recorded between sessions for "Strawberry Fields Forever." Is it any wonder that they chose a high-concept format of songs and skits in the style of a pantomime comedy musical? Suitably impish titles include "Please Don't Bring Your Banjo Back" and "Podgy the Bear and Jasper."
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- er, the Beatles -- inhabit yet another persona here. As the Ravellers, they present an elaborate concept focusing on groups auditioning for a BBC radio program. John Lennon concludes things with a recitation of "When Christmas Time Is Over," part of madcap sequence of malapropisms and weird witticisms that includes the line "When the beasty brangom button to the heather and little inn, and be strattened oot in ma-tether to yer arms once back again. Och away, ye bonnie."
The Beatles' Christmas records, as with the Beatles themselves, had begun dissipate by 1968. Paul McCartney offers a bucolic acoustic number, while John Lennon recites punny prose (titled "Jock and Yono" and "Once Upon a Pool Table"), and it all neatly approximates their growing distance throughout the recording of the White Album. As with that project, which saw notable guest stars like Eric Clapton dropping in, a ukulele-plucking Tiny Tim shows up here with an absurd performance of "Nowhere Man."
It's painfully obvious on the Beatles' seventh and final Christmas record together that they recorded all of their parts separately. It barely even includes the deeply restless George Harrison, Ringo Starr stops by just long enough to plug a movie project, John Lennon and Yoko Ono talk only to one another and Paul McCartney ad libs a Christmas jingle. Perhaps weary of the whole enterprise, it would be years before any of the Beatles returned to seasonal offerings.
Echoing John and Yoko's 1969 peace campaign, 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' reached No. 4 in the U.K. in 1971. "It was still that same message -- the idea that we're just as responsible as the man who pushes the button," Lennon told David Scheff in 1980. The song's singalong finale features the Harlem Community Choir and a group of other singers, including May Pang -- the woman Lennon would have an extended affair with as part of his infamous Lost Weekend.
George Harrison reunited with Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voormann (who designed the Revolver cover) on this entry in our History of the Beatles’ Christmas Records. Released just before Christmas 1974, "Ding Dong" was driven by a theme that Harrison found engraved on the wall at his Friar Park estate: Ring out the old, ring in the new. An accompanying video for the song, which reached the Top 40 in both the U.K. and the U.S., featured Harrison sporting his Sgt. Pepper uniform for the first time since the promotional film for 1967's "Hello Goodbye."
Even though the video for "Wonderful Christmastime" featured Wings' Back to the Egg-era lineup, the song actually emerged from the solo sessions for McCartney II. It's been critically derided over the years, but Paul McCartney got the last ho-ho-ho: Backed with an island-flavored novelty tune dating back to 1975 titled "Rudolph the Red Nose Reggae," "Wonderful Christmastime" rose to the Top 10 in the U.K. and managed similar success when reissued in the U.S. in 1984. The song reportedly rakes in $400,000 a year in royalties for McCartney.
The so-called Threetles' 1995 reunion single, "Free As a Bird," featured a B-side that included part of 1967's "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" along with individual greetings from 1966 added near the end. Dialogue from the 1965 and 1966 recordings, found elsewhere on our History of the Beatles' Christmas Records, can also be heard at the conclusion of "All You Need Is Love" on the 2006 soundtrack to their Cirque du Soleil production, Love. The 1963 Christmas message was made available as bonus content in the Beatles: Rock Band video game in 2009 and later appeared on iTunes.
This fun, full-length seasonal project included Ringo Starr's own version of "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" from the Beatles' 1967 fan-club recording. Jeff Lynne -- who worked with Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the '90s -- sang back-up on three of "I Wanna Be Santa Claus'' songs. The album stiffed, and Starr blamed his record company's lack of support.
We conclude our History of the Beatles' Christmas Records with Paul McCartney's update of the classic 'The Christmas Song,' which featured his Kisses on the Bottom collaborator Diana Krall (who also happens to be the wife of another McCartney collaborator, Elvis Costello). McCartney followed it up a year later with a new version of his "Wonderful Christmastime," this time recorded with the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.