Christmastime is here again/Ain’t been round since you know when… —The Beatles
Did you know that the Beatles recorded a Christmas album? They did. Unfortunately, it wasn’t filled with their covers of songs like Good King Wenceslas and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Except they did sing those two songs…well, let me explain.
Way back in the Swinging Sixties, the Beatles had an official fan club, where fans could send in their shillings or quarters and get the Official Fan Club Newsletter. At the end of 1963, though, they got even more than that: a floppy piece of plastic with shallow grooves which they could plop onto their portable turntable and listen to their favorite Fab Four talk straight to them! That year, and every year since up through 1969, the Beatles sent their biggest fans exclusive Christmas messages on these flexidiscs. In 1970, when the group had broken up, those who were still members of the fan club got the chance to purchase all of the Christmas messages on an official vinyl record. They got one last shot in 1971 before the fan club went under, and bootlegs went to town selling illegal copies to those of us who missed out.
So what are these recordings like? Pretty interesting, as it turns out. Just as with their studio recordings, the group got more and more adventurous on their fan club messages, until they began to fight with one another and go their separate ways.
Below is a summary of each year’s recording with highlights. Warning: spoilers abound.
1963: The Beatles’ Christmas Record. Recorded October 17, 1963, Studio Two, EMI Studios, London.
Yes, the lads had to get into the Christmas spirit a full two months early. However, they rose to the occasion, turning in versions of Good King Wenceslas and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer with silly lyric changes and the backing of what sounds like a celeste and some jingle bells. They chat about the highlights of their year, thank fans for their letters and support, warn them that they no longer like jelly babies (actually, what they didn’t like was getting pelted by them in concert), and generally sound stunned by their success.
HIGHLIGHTS: John: Sings weird version of Christmas greetings to the tune of Happy Birthday. “Garry mimble to you…” PAUL: Gives jelly baby warning and waxes about the joys of studio recording. “Especially all the ones who paid the subscription.” RINGO: Sounds shy, encouraged by Paul to sing a jazzy rendition of King Wenceslas a capella. GEORGE: Thanks the fan club secretaries, including one who didn’t really exist.
Oh, and for good measure, during this recording session they also taped I Want To Hold Your Hand.
1964: Another Beatles Christmas Record. Recorded October 26, 1964, Studio Two.
Begins with a very brief piano and harmonica round of Jingle Bells, then goes on with the same round of thank-yous as before. This time, they all sound much more relaxed. Paul thanks people for buying the records, John for buying his book (In His Own Write), George for seeing the film (A Hard Day’s Night) and Ringo for “just being fans.” Ends with a rendition of Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt.
HIGHLIGHTS: PAUL: “As much as we’ve enjoyed melting them—no, no, that’s wrong! Making them!” JOHN: “I write them in my spare time, it says here.” GEORGE: “We start shooting it [our next film] in February. This time, it’s a gonna be in colour.” RINGO: “Who’s chopping that?” (after hearing sound of something breaking in studio).
1965: The Beatles’ Third Christmas Record. Recorded November 8, 1965, Studio Two.
This was recorded at 3:00 AM after finishing a session for Think For Yourself, and you can hear the weariness in the group’s voices. They were bored with the usual Christmas thank-yous, and it showed. They spend a lot of time singing off-key versions of Yesterday with an acoustic guitar backing, changing the lyrics to Christmas Day. The talk does get noticeably stranger, though, with remarks about politics and non sequiturs about copyright, their fans in the forces and the like.
HIGHLIGHTS: RINGO: “I see you haven’t shaved again [to Paul].” JOHN: Sings what may be an original Christmas song with bizarre lyrics, throwing in Auld Lang Syne with Ringo. PAUL: “What are we gonna do what’s out of copyright?” JOHN: Sings weird version of Auld Lang Syne with lyrics about Vietnam. GEORGE: Sticks to the script, with “a little Christmas message for you.”
1966: The Beatles’ Fourth Christmas Record—Pantomime: Everywhere It’s Christmas. Recorded November 25, 1966, Dick James House, New Oxford Street, London.
This is where shit gets real. This is a Christmas pantomime, in the spirit of the Goon Show, or perhaps the Firesign Theatre or the future Monty Python. Original songs, skits, and general randomness all revolving around the theme “Everywhere It’s Christmas” combine to make for a weird and wild comedy record. A small choir in Corsica, two Scotchmen eating cheese, the captain on the HMS Tremendous, Podgy the Bear and his friend Jasper, the Count Balder and the Baron at Felpin Mansions, and more all predominate. Songs include Everywhere It’s Christmas, Orduenya, and Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back, that old Christmas perennial. “They’re all melody, aren’t they.” The highlight of the Christmas recordings, just as Revolver is their album peak.
1967: Christmastime Is Here Again! Recorded May 19, 1967, Studio Three, EMI Studios, London.
While wrapping up Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles did an equally psychedelic pantomime Christmas message. This time, the theme is a tour of BBC House, with the original number Christmastime Is Here Again (a one-line song, mostly) weaving in and out of the chaos. The boys go from studio to studio, with game shows, political interviews, DJs and Theater Hour, as well as the tap dancing feet of Ringo Starr and actor Victor Spinetti, well known for his roles in A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and the soon-to-be filmed Magical Mystery Tour. Songs include the title track, Get One Of Us For Your Trousers, and Plenty Of Jam Jars by the Ravellers. John ends with a rather bizarre (of course) Christmas poem. A short version (the original is over six minutes) of the title song was released in 1996 as a bonus track on the Real Love single CD.
The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record. Recorded at various locations and times from November-December 1968.
Sadly, the group was beginning to splinter. Just as on the White Album many songs had been recorded by individual Beatles, this message was edited together by British DJ Kenny Everett from individual recordings. Paul contributes an acoustic number, Happy Christmas To You. John reads a slightly bowdlerized (as compared to its later publication) poem entitled Jock and Yono, which includes lines such as “They battled on against overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends.” George, in the States, has Mal Evans wish the fans a Happy Christmas and also drags in Tiny Tim to sing Nowhere Man on the ukulele. Ugh. Ringo seemed to get into the spirit the best, doing a couple of comedy sketches on his own; but a melancholy spirit hangs over the record.
The Beatles Seventh Christmas Record: Happy Christmas 1969. Recorded at various locations and times from November-December 1969.
The last Christmas recording is dominated by John and Yoko, who giggle and talk about peace and play the Mellotron and sing their names to each other. Paul does another acoustic song, This Is To Wish You A Merry Christmas. George’s bit lasts about ten or fifteen seconds. Ringo again does some pantomime and sings Good Evening To You Gentlemen while strumming one chord on an acoustic guitar. He also plugs his new movie Magic Christian Music. Kenny Everett does his best to stitch it together with excerpts from Abbey Road, but it was clear: The dream was over.
On December 15th, Apple Records is releasing the Christmas recordings for the first time since 1971 in a boxed set replicating the seven original flexidiscs on more solid vinyl, with a full-color 16 page booklet with recording details and newsletter excerpts. Only $72.98 USD on Amazon. To which I say: Hey, Paul and Ringo! How about a CD and/or digital release for the masses??
If these recordings ever do come out on iTunes, Spotify and the like, I suggest picking up the 1966 and 1967 recordings, especially if you’re a fan of wacky British humor. All of these records show the unusual Liverpudlian wit of the Beatles, however, and I only hope that someday more people will be able to hear them.
*whispers* Meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can find these on YouTube. Shh!