The Beatles' annual Christmas releases, pressed on cheap flexi-discs and sent out gratis to
members of their fan club, have never been officially released to the general public
(with one minor exception), and they provide a unique window in the the rarified world
of the world's greatest rock group. When the story begins, however, there was very
little music to discuss. The first flexi-disc (recorded in October, 1963, just before
the band invaded America) begins with the Fab Four mangling "Good King Wenceslas" but
quickly devolves into four Beatles passing a single microphone around the table (you
can actually hear the microphone being scooted), taking turns thanking their
fan club for their support. The mood, thanks to a banner year on the English charts,
plots grows thicker very quickly, as more of the Beatles' trademark humor and musical
sophistication revealed itself with each passing year. On the 1964 disc (which follows
a similar format as the previous year), a certain worldliness creeps in: Paul states
acerbically, "We hope you've enjoyed listening to the records as much as we've
enjoyed melting them," and John says of his forthcoming book, "It'll be
the usual rubbish, but it won't cost much." Then, in 1965, the year Bob Dylan
introduced these Liverpudlians to marijuana, the proceedings are all but chaotic,
careening wildly from a vicious parody of Paul's "Yesterday" to a politically
charged Dylan send-up to perfunctory thanks for "all the presents this year...
especially the chewed up pieces of chewing gum and the playing cards made out of
"Pantomime" (1966), by contrast, is a genuine production - almost coherent,
even - and features several snippets of original music, including the exuberant,
vaudevillian"Everywhere It's Christmas." The humor is very English (inspired
by The Goon Show, featuring Peter Sellers) and probably
mystified the young American Beatlemaniacs who received the aural missive (hell,
it mystifies me 30 years hence). "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" (1967)
is weirder still, but it includes the closest thing (in the titular melody) the Beatles'
ever came to committing a proper Christmas song to tape. It was this song, by the
way, that was officially released (in edited form) in 1995 as the b-side to "Free
As A Bird."
the end, however, the flexi-discs became dense, elaborate, psychedelic, nearly indecipherable
collages of sound, though 1968's "Happy Christmas" includes an actual recording
of Tiny Tim warbling "Nowhere Man." Both the '68 and '69 flexi-discs were
edited down by Kenny Everett, an English DJ and fellow Beatle traveler, from lengthy,
rambling tapes, and they probably reflect his personality as much as the Beatles'.
Shortly after the Beatles' 1970 breakup, members of the longsuffering fan club were
offered a chance to purchase all the Christmas flexi-discs together on one vinyl
record, alternately titled From
Then To You (pictured above) in the U.K. and The
Beatles Christmas Album (pictured left) in the U.S. It is that record that has
been frequently bootlegged through the years, though the world of bootlegs is seldom
burdened by consistency and quality control - which is to say, caveat emptor.
Christmas CD appends much material to the original LP, but it's mainly icing
on the cake - outtakes, rehearsals, radio promos, etc. Much more valuable is the
handful of officially released solo Christmas singles - especially John Lennon's
classic "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," recorded with wife Yoko Ono and the
Plastic Ono Band in 1971. A soaring, optimistic, yet bittersweet song, "Happy
Xmas" is far-and-away one of the greatest post-60's Christmas records, though
it is rarely collected on Christmas compilations (probably for contractual reasons).
It is, however, usually included on hit collections like Lennon
Legend (1998). By the way, the b-side to the original "Happy Xmas" 45,
Yoko's "Listen The Snow Is Falling," is lovely, too, but Vigotone did
not include it in Ultimate
Christmas. Instead, look for it as a bonus track on Rykodisc's CD reissue of
John & Yoko's otherwise excerable 1969 Wedding
included on Ultimate
Christmas is George Harrison's typically whimsical "Ding Dong Ding Dong," originally
from his album Dark
Horse (1974) - a song never compiled on a Christmas album before. Additionally,
we get both sides of Paul McCartney's 1979 Columbia Christmas single. Macca's a-side, "Wonderful
Christmastime," was recorded during the McCartney
II sessions in the same willfully simple, homespun fashion. The b-side, "Rudolph
The Red-Nosed Reggae," was recorded four years earlier and sounds - amazingly
enough - like "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" played in a reggae style....
Both songs were appended to the English CD reissue of McCartney's Back
To The Egg (1979).
Now, having said all that, in 2017 - long after I wrote the bulk of this review - Capitol Records finally deigned to release the Beatles' fan club flexi-discs as The Christmas Records, an elaborately packaged boxed set of colored 7-inch vinyl records with a $75 price tag. It was a momentous occasion, in that it was the first-ever wide commercial release of these charming, historically significant recordings. And, the box was, simply put, stunningly fab. But, it was more than a little irritating for many consumers - including fans who no longer collected vinyl, and fans without piles of surplus cash. I suspect that eventually Capitol will eventually offer simpler, cheaper options (LP, CD, MP3, streaming, whatever), though not till they've milked collector's market for every last penny. It certainly means that those of us who own Ultimate
Christmas won't be throwing it out anytime soon. Merry Krimble, indeed.
Anyway, shortly after the release of Ultimate
Christmas, unassuming drummer Ringo
Starr became the only Beatle to record an actual Christmas album - in this
case, the charming and (not surprisingly) unassuming I
Wanna Be Santa Claus (1999). Mark Hudson (of, believe it or not, 70's bubblegum act the Hudson
Brothers) helps write, play, arrange, and/or produce practically the whole record,
but the music retains Ringo's trademark jocularity and casual, confident musicality.
Mr. Starkey certainly gets high marks for effort - six original compositions and
a rolicking new rendition of the Beatles' "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)."
Nearly half of Ringo's new songs rise above average; I'm especially fond of the
slammin' glam rock opener, "Come On Christmas," and his wistful title track
is worthy of the sentiment it expresses. Surprisingly, a couple of the covers are
just as innovative. Starr and Hudson drive "Winter Wonderland" through
New Orleans and fly "White Christmas" down to Jamaica - with both trips
yielding delightful, unexpected rewards. The rest of the album is what we've come
to expect from Ringo - honest, good-time rock 'n' roll with none of the innovation
of the Beatles themselves. (In 2003, I
Wanna Be Santa Claus was reissued almost verbatim as 20th
Century Masters: The Christmas Collection.)
Before I close, I should note that the mastering of Ultimate
Christmas Collection (in addition to the packaging) is unassailable, especially
considering what they had - or didn't have - to work with. It behooves any Beatle
fan or Christmas music buff to track this material down - in whatever format you can - but one can only hope
that the surviving Beatles (or their corporate partners) will follow up the Christmas Records vinyl box with digital editions. [top of page]