❉ The Beatles’ Christmas records were as as joyous as anything they produced, if much sillier.
The Beatles’ history has been told many, many times. The same events and stories have been pored over time and time again in books, on film and TV and on the stage. Sometimes the story has been told in great detail and to great effect (Lewisohn’s Tune In and Braun’s 1964 account Love Me Do: The Beatles Progress, for example), at other times less successfully (the awful but strangely addictive 1979 film Birth Of The Beatles and Hunter Davies’s bizarre The Beatles Book from 2016).
What has been less explored is how The Beatles themselves told the story of their career. Not through the official Anthology series, book and records, but through the Christmas Fan Club records, recorded by the group, pressed up as flexi-discs at the Lyntone pressing plant, and sent out to members between 1963 and 1969, with a compilation edition as the final offering in 1970.
These records are finally receiving their first official release to the public this year, although they’ve been widely bootlegged and a listen through and ‘quote-along’ has been part of many Beatles fans’ Christmas ritual for a long while.
In the broadest sense the discs represent the position the band were at in their career at the time of release – the balance of power between them as contracted recording artistes and as a unique and creative force. The early discs rely on the input of their press officer, Tony Barrow, in the scripting of the messages, and a sense of contractual duty, whilst the middle period is guided by the band and trusted producer George Martin and the final offerings are wrangled together by DJ and friend-of-the-band, Kenny Everett from the contributions sent-in individually by the group members.
The messages for ’63 are kept fairly tight. Following an a cappella rendition of Good King Wenceslas (“Deep and Crisp and Crispy!”), each member gets a turn to thank the fans and the fan club secretaries – you can hear the group laugh at the mention of the fictional “Anne Collingham”, a name invented by Tony Barrow as a catch-all for fan club correspondence from London, whilst the real Bettina Rose was based in Surrey and club stalwart Freda Kelly (“Good Old Freda!”) remained in Liverpool.
The following year we can hear the group beginning to exert themselves more. As their creativity and strength of their position within EMI grows, so does their attitude and approach to the Christmas messages; Barrow’s scripted lines struggle to be understood as the group improvise, “We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the records as much as we’ve enjoyed melting them,” McCartney deliberately misreads, and the result is a more relaxed and novel recording. There is a reference to the “old days” of Love Me Do which had been recorded only two years previously. Not long when looking back over their career with modern eyes, but a massive stretch to a still-young band who didn’t know quite how long they were going to last.
The ’65 flexi-disc is an even looser affair and by ’66 the group is writing and producing the disc as a complete pantomime, with sketches and original songs, such as the catchy “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back” and, notably, George Martin in attendance as producer for the first time on a Christmas recording.
The 1967 disc, Christmas Time (Is Here Again) was completed in the final recording session of the year in which Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour were released and unsurprisingly, of all the Christmas messages, it is the most ambitious and creative. One of the assets that George Martin had as a producer, one of the key things that bonded him to the group, was his involvement in comedy and in particular the records made by members of The Goon Show.
This aspect of Martin’s career sees him often described as a producer of ‘Novelty’ records. The term ‘novelty’ is a tricky one – it implies something lightweight and unimportant, yet there have been comic recordings for almost as long as recording technology has existed and George Martin produced his fair share of the best of these. Although Spike Milligan eventually defected to Decca, The Beatles’ record label, Parlophone, had put out some great comedy songs and albums. You have to be a confident producer, with a great understanding of your artist to be able to facilitate the production of tracks like Milligan’s Q5 Piano Theme or the banned-at-the-time-to-prevent-litigation version of Unchained Melody by Spike and Peter Sellers.
Many of the children’s songs generations of kids have grown up with were inherited from these early George Martin productions – Nellie the Elephant, Flanders and Swann’s The Hippopotamus Song, Right Said Fred and Hole In The Ground, the latter of which is sung, dripping with gleeful black humour, by Bernard Cribbins.
Rock history tends towards being po-faced about comic and comedy influences on the Sacred Album Monuments at which it worships, but The Beatles always had an eye on the witty, the silly and the entertaining. Couple this with the emergence of groups such as The Bonzo Dog Band, whose radio appearances often seemed more like sketch-shows and whose number 5 hit (I’m The) Urban Spaceman was later produced by McCartney as the pseudonymous Apollo C. Vermouth, and you get the impression that silliness was really in the air.
The whole of the ’67 flexi-disc hangs on the only real Christmas song the band ever recorded, Christmas Time (Is Here Again), interjected by spoof game-shows, interviews, adverts and radio programmes. Victor Spinetti, the actor who appeared in A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, and later adapted Lennon’s poems as a stage play, appears in the cast. The whole disc lasts a little over six minutes and is as joyous as anything they produced, if much sillier. It would be easy to tarnish it by claiming the influence of, ahem, creative stimulants, but the Beatles were naturally disposed to good humour as a group, as can be heard in the earlier Christmas records, their interviews and the speech snippets in the Live At The BBC recordings.
Things have become more serious by the following year, however, with the festive messages being recorded separately. Harrison’s split from the band, emotionally if not in reality, is most starkly recognised, as he introduces a third-party, in the form of the Ukulele wielding Tiny Tim, who delivers his own rendition of Nowhere Man. It was only a couple of months later that Harrison brought Billy Preston into the Let It Be sessions – it seems that part of his coping mechanism for remaining in the band was to take solace in others and to use them as a way of breaking up the tension in the increasingly unhappy studio situation.
John fills his timeslot with readings of his story, ‘Jock and Yono’, a typical Lennon-style nonsense verse, but with thinly-veiled references to the struggles their burgeoning relationship was having with both their “Beast Friends” and the racism from the public press, the “Poisonous Monsters”. The only really moment of traditional Beatles Christmas wackiness comes from a hyper-active Ringo Starr acting against himself in a crossed-phone-line-nonsense routine. McCartney’s musical contributions to this and the following year’s disc prove that even when he was improvising quick ditties out of obligation, he still had the ability to make up a catchy tune. This isn’t to say that these messages are all doom and gloom, but looked at from an historical perspective, they are laden with meaning and stories as-yet-untold. The fans receiving their flexi-discs that year had little idea how deep the divisions in the band were starting to get.
The final offering is dominated by John and Yoko, with George almost entirely absent and Ringo the only other Beatle making a special effort with a song and a plug for his new film, The Magic Christian, the name of which emerges through the magic of Everett’s tape editing from Starr’s repetition of “Merry Christmas”. Everett, perhaps tickled by Ringo’s use of the fan club message for commercial exploits, leaves in his taped instructions for all to hear (“It’s just a plug for the film, Ken. Try and keep it on.”). McCartney offers another short catchy song and greeting and, as the disc fades into a choir singing The First Noel, save for a brief snippet of Ringo laughing that was it for the Beatles Fan Club flexi-discs. By the time it was issued that December Lennon had left the band, albeit not publicly, and January of 1970 saw the last ‘group’ session with the recording of George’s I Me Mine for the lingering Get Back/Let It Be project.
With the official release of the Christmas recordings, people will finally get a chance to plug an important gap in their Beatles record collection. Beyond the interesting artwork and content of the discs, you get a chance to experience the entirety of The Beatles recording career through a kind of parallel contemporary history of the group. There’s very little new material to issue officially by the group now (don’t hold your breath for Let It Be on Blu-Ray or Carnival of Light on 7”), so make the most of this, Beatle People, it’s got Jingle Bells on.
❉ The Beatles’ “The Christmas Records” box set is due for release on 15 December on coloured vinyl in one 7” box set. The set will also appear in a 180g 1LP black vinyl edition, and as a limited edition 1LP picture disc.
❉ Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.