A Guide to the Strange, Little-Known, Hard-to-Find Beatles Christmas Recordings
by Colin Fleming
DECEMBER 17 2014
BY DAILY EXPRESS/ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES.
Little in my life has enriched me more than the Beatles or Christmas—in different (and yet dovetailing) ways. And there is one enriching aspect of the Beatles’ catalog that is so rare, that it falls between the worlds of official product and bootleg. This wasn’t a commercial record, it wasn’t a bootleg, it was its own thing, like the holiday season itself.
I’m talking about the band’s annual Christmas message to the members of their fan club. The recordings—which are usually in the five- or six-minute range—were first sent out in 1963 on what were called flexi discs, to the people who had a big hand in getting the Beatles where the Beatles then presently were. Which is to say, massive in England, poised for global domination, and poised, too, to leave their original brigade of backers behind.
The Beatles never cut a proper, commercial Christmas record, which is interesting, in a way, given that there’s no shortage of fine pop Christmas music. Never mind that they possessed a rich Christmas musical history. The 1962 Hamburg Star Club recordings, proof that the Beatles were once the bar band of bar bands, were made possibly on Christmas Day. One of their finest concerts, a sort of farewell to Liverpool, was performed around the holiday in 1963.
But every fall from 1963 to 1969, the Beatles would break from their work, gather in the studio (save during the last two years of the Christmas recordings, but more on that shortly), and sing what appeared to be drunken (or spliff-influenced) carols, make fun of each other, concoct all manner of Joycean puns, dash off some of their own Christmas ditties, do loads of intertextual jokes, and, in a singular, Beatles-y way, tap into the spirit of the good old Fezziwig-style English Christmas.
The four of them even came up with their own word, like a code, to describe this private world of Christmas cheer: Chrimble. In my head, even when I watch Rankin/Bass holiday specials and visit with Alastair Sim in the best version of A Christmas Carol, the word Chrimble occurs a lot. It takes some restraint not to wish people in the wider public, those not in the know, a “happy Chrimble” in casual conversation. The fan-club messages, with their relative exclusivity, were like a private Christmas card, only with the Beatles doing what we called, in the hockey locker rooms I grew up in, ranking on each other. The English call it taking the piss. Ho, ho, ho.
My family moved from New England to Chicago shortly after I got my driver’s license, in 1992, and the one thing I asked my dad to do, on the vehicular side of things, was teach me how to get from our house to the Clark Street downtown that had all of these used-record shops on it. I could get to that street and back, and nowhere else in the city. Detours were dooming.
On one such adventure one July day, I found a pirated copy of a 1970 Beatles LP that was pressed up for the band’s stateside fan-club contingent. When I discovered this semi-official LP with all of their Christmas recordings on it, it wasn’t exactly a Christmas miracle. But when I heard the band, back in ’63, serenade drummer Ringo Starr by incorporating his name into “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I knew I had a new Christmas tradition on my hands.
And while I have no trouble sharing all of this with you, and would love for you to come to enjoy it as I do, I do hope the flexi discs retain their mysteries, a kind of ad hoc musical witnessing of the elf going back up the chimney. A piss-taker of an elf.
They didn’t know, when they were making that first flexi in 1963, that there would be an overtaking of the States. As they lumber through a hilarious attempt at “Good King Wenceslas,” you realize that John Lennon is the leader in chicanery. There’s a script prepared by P.R. man Tony Barrow, but it proves something to be made fun of, with fellow Beatles snickering in the background. Thank yous are made, which sound both japing and sincere—a neat Beatles trick—and about two minutes in you’re hankering for a glass of nog, thinking, Damn, these guys are fun.
The 1964 flexi finds a group less awestruck by what is happening around them, clearly more tightly knit, more relaxed, funnier. Paul McCartney, ever the professional until Lennon gets him up to no good, offers his thanks with, “Don’t know where we’d be without you, really.” Lennon cuts in behind him, “In the army, probably.” A most wiseass Father Christmas. But it’s that timing, even deployed here conversationally, that informed the music; like that part in the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” where McCartney counts in the tune and Lennon slips in that crafty little “bye.” Same idea—much different setting.
The ’65 flexi is all-out zaniness. The band members are wrapping up touches on their second LP of the year, Rubber Soul, either their masterwork, or their masterwork runner-up behind 1966’s Revolver. There’s an aspect of the uncles having gotten at the ale a touch early. They totter through sing-alongs of “Yesterday.” The implication is plain: we got a new Christmas standard here, and it’s not even a Christmas song, normally. Then there’s their attempt at “Auld Lang Syne,” featuring a verse about Vietnam, so Christmas Beatles have become Christmas social-commentary Beatles.
There are more effects on the ’66 flexi because there were more effects featuring regularly in the Beatles’ music by then, with McCartney ripping through a tune called “Everywhere It’s Christmas,” which you can imagine Frosty singing in one of his specials. Enough sleigh bells are shook to make you think of making some mulled cider, but this is a changing band in a changing world.
Come 1967, the band is impersonating a fictional band called the Revellers—just as they had taken on a more famous alter ego earlier that year—and you fairly marvel at how far these young men had come since the first flexi. The humor has more of an edge, and while the fellowship is in evidence, there’s also a clear hardening, too, a closing of ranks, and the creation of this little Christmas message, for the extended family of the band’s original home and hearth, feels like an attempt to get their own collective ghost of Christmas Past in on their career.
Colin Fleming, who writes for The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and The Boston Globe, is writing a book about the Beatles called Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles, and a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write His Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time.
The Beatles' Christmas records
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Beatles' Christmas records were spoken and musical messages from English rock group The Beatles that were posted out on flexi disc at Christmas time to members of their official fan-clubs in the United Kingdom and the United States. One such record was issued each year from 1963 to 1969 and an LP compilation of all seven in 1970.
Conceived as a means to appease fan-club members whose letters, due to their sheer volume, were not always being answered in a timely manner, the records included the Beatles' messages of thanks to "loyal Beatle people", along with skits, Christmas carols, and original compositions.
None of the original recordings has ever been subject to general release though a version of "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)", an original composition which appeared in edited form on the 1967 record, eventually gained an official release in 1995, as part of the The Beatles Anthology project.
The Beatles' Seventh Christmas Record: Happy Christmas 1969
The final Beatles Christmas offering was also recorded separately, as the band had effectively split by this point. It features an extensive visit with John and Yoko at their Tittenhurst Park estate, where they play "what will Santa bring me?" games. Harrison only appears briefly, and Starr only shows up to plug his recent film, The Magic Christian. Paul sings his original ad-lib, "This is to Wish You a Merry, Merry Christmas." Starting at 1:30, at the tail-end of Ringo's song, the guitar solos from "The End" are heard, followed by Yoko interviewing John.
For the only time, the American and British jackets were identical. The US version of the flexi-disc had an elaborate drawing of the Beatles' faces on it. Drawings were credited to Richard Starkey & Zak Starkey.
US front cover artwork
In December 1970, in the wake of the band's break-up, the UK fan-club sent out a compilation LP of all seven recordings, entitled From Then To You. The master tapes having been mislaid, the LP was mastered from copies of the original flexi discs. In the US, the seven messages were issued as The Beatles' Christmas Album sent out by the fan-club around springtime 1971. It was the first time the 1964 and 1965 messages had been made available in the US. With no new recording, the LP served to remind that the Beatles were no more, but had the advantage of durability over the original flexi discs.