The Beatles Christmas messages began as a personal show of holiday gratitude to the band’s fan club, but grew into an annual tradition as important as any evergreen chestnut for a generation. Growing up, the silly off-key carols meant Christmas. They were exciting. They were fun. They were funny. I never in my life worried about offending someone by saying Merry or Happy Christmas because, due to these recordings, I would forever mangle greetings like “Hare Kringle” and “very new jeers.” Inviting Krishna devotees and insult comics into the happy proceedings.
Christmas was never a religious holiday at our house. It rocked. And it all started when radio stations started playing the crimbly greetings. Long after the Beatles broke up, prog and oldies stations alike would keep up the tradition.
The Beatles were natural comedians, as was their producer, George Martin. As a matter of fact, the producer only decided to work with the band after George Harrison got snarky with him. When The Beatles were asked what concerns they had with the first recording session, the guitarist took issue with the Martin’s tie. Thus began a subliminal comic teaming informing future sessions.
“Paul McCartney once remarked that everybody from Liverpool is a comedian,” said Kenneth Womack, the author of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin. “This was certainly true of the Beatles, whose wit featured in many of their releases of the years. In many ways, their shared love of comedy and witticisms brought George and the band closer together.”
Martin made his pre-fab fame churning out comedy novelties for the likes of the Goon Show and Peter Sellers solo,” said Womack who also wrote the books Long and Winding Roads, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, The Beatles Encyclopedia, and New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles. “Working with Peter Sellers and the Goons afforded George with a top-drawer background in spoken-word and comedy recordings. Working with his Parlophone team in the 1950s, George became a master of studio sound effects.
Beatle babies like myself, born in 1963, barely able to talk, could still sing along to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo” on that year’s Beatles’ Christmas Record, which came out on Dec. 6. It was recorded at EMI’s Studio Two on October 17, 1963. Written and produced by Tony Barrow, it was the first official fan club shout-out. Prior to this, the musicians yelled out of the broken front window of the white van Mal Evans drove them around in. They wanted to personally thank everyone for their support, but they hadn’t enough pens.
The band topped the bill at the London Palladium and a couple of days later were invited to take part in the Royal Variety Show, where John, speaking with his voices, asked the queen to rattle her jewelry in time. Ringo went for pathos, being the fourth and the last musketeer to join the Beatles, pointing out that he’d only started to play drums in the group in 1962. George Harrison remembered to thank the fan club secretaries, Ann Collingham and Bettina Rose, and mentioned good old Freda Kelly in Liverpool.
Christmas carols should only have one verse, according to The Simpsons’ Marge Simpson, because second verses get all weird and religiousy. The Beatles are probably the only musical unit who could make “Good King Wenceslas,” creepy from the beginning, fun. The band wished their fans a Garry Nimble and thank them for the birthday cards they sent, but requested they throw peppermint creams, chocolate drops and dolly mixtures at the stage, because they’d gone right off Jelly Babies.
Merry Grew Year. Crimble maybe? Another Beatles Christmas Record was recorded: on October 26, 1964 and came out 18 December 1964. It may have been written by the press secretary, Tony Barryow, but the bad hand-wroter whor typed it up must have already gotten into the open bottles of holiday spirits. It was a busy year, with A Hard Day’s Night having been released and the upcoming Help! was announced to be in color. The Beatles had a quiet time melting records that year and they still had time to offer to “Oh Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt?”
Though important to us, the Christmas recordings were mainly a lark for the band. “For the Beatles, the Christmas records made for an entertaining annual diversion, but they were not even remotely in the same realm as their singles releases,” Womack said.
The sessions were more festive than usual recordings. “For the Beatles, the Christmas productions were largely pressure-free,” Womack said. “They could let their hair down, pun intended, and be more playful than they could during the production of their albums and singles.”
The Beatles’ Third Christmas Record was recorded November 8, 1965. This time, the Beatles had a hand in writing it, collaborating with their press secretary Barrow after mocking his proceedings the preceding year. It all sounds like “Yesterday,” except their rendition of Paul’s song “Yesterday,” which sounds like an outtake from its flipside “Yellow Submarine.” You might think the former novelty producer must have been tickled to listen to the Beatles forever blowing bubbles, “George missed a good bit of the ‘Yellow Submarine’ session,” Womack says. “He was out with a stomach illness and sent his wife in his stead.”
The New Year’s Eve anthem “Auld Lang Syne” turns into Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and the Beatles show some love for the Motown group the Four Tops by almost violating copyright on that year’s hit’ “It’s the Same Old Song.”
Guten taen, meinen damen and herren. Everywhere it’s Christmas. Everywhere it’s song. London, Paris, Rome and New York and Tokyo, Hong Kong. The Beatles’ Fourth Christmas Record, Pantomime: Everywhere It’s Christmas, was recorded on November 25, 1966 at the Dick James Music offices. Recorded between sessions for Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” it was written by The Beatles and was the first to be produced by George Martin.
“George only participated in a few of the seven Beatles Christmas discs, but he was instrumental in arguably the finest episode in the series,” said Womack, who points out that you can “see George Martin with a devilish goatee” in his book Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin. “George not only produced the mock radio program entitled “Fictive Hour,” but also shared his voice in the merriment.” The Beatles dropped their usual greetings and mixed songs like “Everywhere It’s Christmas”, “Orowainya”, and “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back” with skits “Podgy the Bear and Jasper” and “Felpin Mansions.”
1967: Christmas Time Is Here Again! was recorded on May 19, 1967 and came out on Dec. 15. Again written by The Beatles and produced by George Martin, it came in the form of a BBC radio show audition. The Beatles play game show contestants, actors in the radio drama “Theatre Hour,” and, having already impersonated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the album of the same name, another fictitious band singing “Plenty of Jam Jars.” Lennon read the poem, “When Christmas Time Is Over,” and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were feted.
“I am always moved by ‘Christmas Time (Is Here Again),’” Womack said, reminding us that you can see Martin with a goatee in his book, Maximum Volume. “It’s hilarious, for sure, but the ending, with the sound of winter making its descent, never fails to inspire me in its simplicity and quietude.”
As the years progressed, the band managed to put more and yet even less effort into the engineering of the messages. The band had already used tape loops on songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Paul did his experimental bit with “Carnival of Sound,” and Lennon created the masterpiece sound collage “Revolution Number 9.” Controversial though it is, the composition informs the 1968 and 1969 Christmas messages, as does the influence of aant garde artist Yoko Ono.
1968: The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record was recorded between November and December of 1968. It was produced by British radio personality, and future Syd Snot, Kenny Everett. “For the Beatles, working with Everett was a matter of convenience,” Womack said. “Throughout their career, George often found himself mastering year-end releases for the holiday shopping season, and the Christmas records took a backseat, understandably, to their commercial recordings.”
The 1968 recording was the first Beatles Christmas fan-club disc to be recorded separately by each band member who “often improvised on the spot or shortly before the session,” according to Womack. George Harrison brought in the falsetto tulip tiptoer with the same name as the hobbled boy in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim, to warble “Nowhere Man” with ukulele accompaniment. McCartney presented the song “Happy Christmas, Happy New Year.” Lennon read his poems “Jock and Yono” and “Once Upon a Pool Table.”
The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record: Happy Christmas 1969 was recorded separately by each Beatle between November and December 1969. It was also put together by Everett. John and Yoko wondering “what will Santa bring me?” when they get out of bed in their place in Tittenhurst Park. McCartney improvises the song “This is to Wish You a Merry, Merry Christmas.” Ringo hawks his movie The Magic Christian, which he starred in with George Martin’s old buddy and pal Peter Sellers. Ringo’s son Zak Starkey, who drummed for The Who longer than Keith Moon, drew the cover.
This year’s new Beatles Christmas offering include a limited-edition box set of their Christmas holiday messages, which came out on Dec. 15. Besides The Beatles Christmas Record (1963), Another Beatles Christmas Record (1964), The Beatles Third Christmas Record (1965), Pantomime — Everywhere It’s Christmas (1966), Christmas Time (Is Here Again) (1967), The Beatles Sixth Christmas Record (1968), and The Beatles Seventh Christmas Record (1969), the box includes a 16-page booklet. The Beatles also released high-resolution 50th anniversary repackagings of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, mixed by George Martin’s son Giles Martin, which includes alternate takes.
Get one of them of then your trousers. Get one of them for your homes.