Dear Beatle People…
When the future Sir George Martin first encountered John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, he famously wasn’t impressed by their music. “They weren’t hit material, I didn’t think, anyway,” he reflected to CBS News. “But they had tremendous charisma, those guys. I fell in love with them, really. They were cheeky and they had this sparkle…” That charisma and most definitely that sparkle shines through on a surprise new release just in time for the holiday season.
The Christmas Records from Apple and Universal Music is the first-ever commercial reissue of the Fab Four’s annual free Christmas messages, sent out each year between 1963 and 1969 on flexidiscs to members of the U.K.’s Beatles Fan Club. (A 1970 fan club LP, From Then to You, collected all seven records. It was known in its U.S. version as The Beatles Christmas Album.) For this elaborate box set, each original fan club recording (running between four and eight minutes each) has been pressed on colored 7-inch vinyl, making for a vastly superior sonic experience to the original flexidiscs. Each recording is presented in a sturdy replica sleeve and is individually sealed. The vibrant, quirky, and fun mélange of off-the-cuff singing, comedy, and spoken-word silliness on each recording showcases the lads’ spirit that and camaraderie so captivated George Martin. Moreover, the contents of each mirror the development of the band itself. Indeed, the final two messages weren’t even recorded by all four members in the same room. These Christmas records are a winning snapshot of “a day in the life” of the world’s most famous band.
The Christmas records were conceived by Tony Barrow, the public relations head of Brian Epstein’s firm, NEMS, and the first two messages were scripted by Barrow and tweaked by John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the studio as they took their turns to thank their fans. In 1963, the fan club membership totaled around 30,000; by the following year, that figure had more than doubled to 65,000 as Beatlemania swept the land. Barrow’s instincts were spot-on; consider the impact of the group during this period speaking directly and intimately to their fans once a year.
A quaint charm and jolly irreverence mark the first couple of messages. In 1963, the group goofily riffed on Christmas carols from “Good King Wenceslas” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Paul disavowed Jelly Babies and casually hinted towards the Beatles’ future (“We like doing stage shows because it’s great to hear an audience enjoying themselves, but the thing we like best – I think so, anyway – is going into the recording studio to make new records”). In his thanks, George offers gratitude to “Anne Collingham” – the fictional Fan Club secretary cooked up by Barrow. There’s a fly-on-the-wall intimacy as the Fabs pass the microphone around, poking fun at each other and the words of the script, and in 1964, raucously banging out a few bars of “Oh, Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt,” an old Irish traditional tune.
After recording “Think for Yourself” for Rubber Soul, the Beatles tackled the ’65 Christmas record, by now a tradition acknowledged in fan club correspondence. Most amusing are the brief references to The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song” (“Copyright, Johnny! What are we going to do that’s out of copyright?”) and an “Auld Lang Syne” growled a la the gravelly-voiced Barry McGuire. For good measure, their own “Yesterday” gets the same merciless treatment at the beginning and end of the message.
The fourth Christmas record, from 1966, took a different approach. Recorded on November 25, one day after a version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was cut, the record took the form of a pantomime with original skits (with titles like “A Rare Cheese,” “The Loyal Toast,” and “Podgy the Bear and Jasper”) and three loose pieces of original music (primarily composed by Paul, per Ringo) banged out on piano: the sing-along “Everywhere It’s Christmas,” the surprisingly attractive chant “Orowayna,” and upbeat “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back.” Even in these brief fragments, McCartney’s unerring melodic sense is in evidence. (Paul even contributed the psychedelic cover.) For the first time, George Martin was credited with producing the record. His experience as a comedy producer for The Goons (including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe) served him well overseeing the Beatles’ annual bit of seasonal lunacy.
The Christmas records reached their peak in 1967 with the final one specifically created by John, Paul, George, and Ringo for their fans. Christmas Time (Is Here Again) was titled after the song of the same name written and performed by all four Fabs specifically for this message. (The simple rocker is heard in snippets throughout the six-minute disc. It was edited into straightforward form in 1995 for The Beatles Anthology and later covered by Ringo Starr on his own solo holiday LP, I Wanna Be Santa Claus. George Martin produced this most lavish of the Christmas records with sound effects and orchestral samples enlivening The Beatles’ spoof of the BBC in which they portray several characters auditioning for the famed institution. The group’s onscreen co-star Victor Spinetti and right-hand man Mal Evans showed up, too. At the conclusion of the miniature play, John reads his free verse poem “When Christmas Time Is Over” as “Auld Lang Syne” is played on organ.
Kenny Everett, a popular DJ, crafted the final two Christmas records, as The Beatles could no longer find the wherewithal or the time to record these fan club treats together. The 1968 entry was spliced together by Everett from individual contributions, including John reading his poems “Jock and Yono” and “Once Upon a Pool Table.” Paul delivered another musical fragment with “Happy Christmas, Happy New Year,” and the sonic collage also found room for the infectious “Baroque Hoedown” (later to become famous as the theme music for Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade) plus snippets of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Yer Blues,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter” – plus Tiny Tim warbling “Nowhere Man” in his inimitable fashion. The final record, from 1969, primarily featured John and Yoko, though Ringo managed to get in a plug for his zany film The Magic Christian. Ringo was also credited, with his young son Zak, for the cover design of the original record. George can be heard for a mere few seconds, but Paul managed to gift “This is to Wish You a Merry, Merry Christmas,” another ad-libbed holiday tune. These final two records lack the charm and unforced jollity of their earlier counterparts, but are nonetheless fascinating remnants of the era.
A sixteen-page booklet accompanies the box set, featuring an introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, track-by-track liner notes, and reproductions of the newsletters which accompanied the original flexidiscs. These discs follow the format of the original British issues, as the U.S. fan club mailings often differed. Audio has been mastered from best available sources, including analog tapes and the original records. Attention to detail further manifests itself in the great replica labels which adorn each colored single. (All are one-sided except for the final two; the rear labels are adorned with the Beatles logo.) The only component absent in this festive but elegant package is a CD (or even a download code); while the vinyl format is ideally-suited for this set, fans and collectors have long hoped for an official release of these messages in the digital domain. If a standalone release wasn’t in the cards – somewhat understandable, as The Beatles’ The Christmas Records is hardly what a casual fan would expect from that title – an accompanying CD would have been a great boon to this set.
The Christmas Records plugs a gap in many a Beatles collection and makes for a perfect gift. While there’s only about 45 minutes of sound spread across these seven vinyl singles, it’s a delightful holiday treat and vivid time capsule for Beatles fans. Happy Crimble, everybody!