Countless rock ‘n’ roll icons have taken it upon themselves to deliver a syrupy dose of Christmas cheer come the festive season. From Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ to David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s sickeningly heartwarming ‘Little Drummer Boy’, practically all the big names, at one point or another, decided to milk the teets of the Christmas cow – all of them apart from The Beatles, that is. John Lennon may have released his much-celebrated ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ once the Fab Four parted ways, but for many years, it was assumed that The Beatles had flat out refused to release anything verging on a Christmas single in their day. That, of course, is nonsense.
It was recently discovered that, between 1963 and 1969, The Beatles sent a series of private Christmas records to members of their fan club. These surreal “flexi discs” of delight contained spoken word messages, sketches, skits, and the odd fragment of original songs. Until relatively recently, these private pressings were incredibly rare and, even in their own day, were regarded as semi-mythological. However, in 2017, they were collected and reissued as The Christmas Records.
The motivation behind these Christmas recordings was to give The Beatles the chance to blow off some steam. From 1963 onwards, The Beatles found themselves at the very centre of public British life and were likely beginning to wither under the harsh lights of the media frenzy that accompanied Beatlemania. These recordings, in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo evoke the playful charm of The Goonshow, served as an antidote to all of that – giving them the opportunity to create without limits.
The first Beatles Christmas record was created in 1963 in Abbey Road Studios just before they were to record their next single ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. Tony Barrow, their press officer, suggested that they record a Christmas greeting for their fan club. The Beatles liked the idea and agreed to read Barrow’s pre-prepared script, full of the usual festive formalities.
After singing a gloriously off-key version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’, the band remould Barrow’s script with impish delight. After John Lennon introduces himself, saying: “Hello, this is John speaking with his voice!” Barrow’s words are quickly abandoned and hilarity ensues. Barrow cobbled together the greeting and release it as a one-track single, sending out thirty thousand copies of the recording to fan-club members in the first week of December.
Having enjoyed the experience so much the first time around, The Beatles decided to make another Christmas recording the next year and approached Barrow for his approval: “When are we doing this year’s Crimble record?’ They asked me. They also wanted another script. I knew they needed my words simply as a security measure in case they dried up. In the event, they made everything I wrote much funnier by their distinctively zany, Goons-style presentation.”
But, by 1965, their enthusiasm began to dry up. As The Beatles shimmied into Studio Two of Abbey Road that October, nobody seemed very keen on recording the annual message, and the audio capture lacked the same geniality as it had in year’s past. Indeed, the burgeoning counterculture scene lent a much darker tone to their 1965 recording, with overt references to the Vietnam war making their way into the final product.
Over the next three years, The Beatles continued to send their yearly Christmas recording to their fans, releasing Christmas Time Is Here Again! in 1967, The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record the following year, and The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record: Happy Christmas 1969 the year after that – each of which is imbued with the same tensions and creative developments which defined the albums The Beatles released in those years. But, even as the Fab Four changed, they continued to dedicate a small chunk of time to make each other laugh – revealing that, after everything, they still needed to make light of the world around them.