ICYMI: The Beatles ‘The Christmas Records’ was a 5-Star affair

THE BEATLES
The Christmas Records
Apple/Capitol/UMusic

5 Stars

By John M. Borack

From 1963 through 1969, the Beatles recorded humorous (and often wonderfully strange) holiday-themed messages that were only distributed to members of their US and UK fan clubs via flimsy flexi-discs. These Christmas messages contained snatches of music as well as frequently hilarious examples of the absurdist humor for which the Beatles – in particular John Lennon – would become known.

Although portions of some of the Christmas recordings have seen release in bits and pieces – on the B-side of the “Free as a Bird” single, on the Love album, as part of the Beatles Rock Band video game – they have never been made available to the general public as a complete set until now.

The Christmas Records is a limited edition boxed set featuring all seven of the Fabs’ Christmas messages, each presented on a colored vinyl 7” single (white, red, blue, yellow, green, clear, and orange, respectively) and housed in a heavy-duty picture sleeve with the original artwork replicated. According to published reports, the master tapes for 1964, 1965 and 1967 were utilized; the rest are dubs from the flexis. The sound quality throughout is excellent, although the audio levels of the messages seem to vary wildly from year to year (1966 is very low in comparison to 1967’s hot-sounding master).

The difference in the messages from the simple, “Thanks to our loyal fans” tone of the 1963 and 1964 recordings (scripted by Beatles press officer Tony Barrow) through the psychedelic wonderfulness of the 1966 and 1967 offerings (where absurdist skits and typically catchy tuneful tidbits are the order of the day) to the final two greetings (which feature each Beatle recorded separately) parallel the growth and, ultimately, dissolution of the group.

Highlights aplenty dot the landscape of the seven discs, which range in length from four to nearly eight minutes: on the 1964 platter, Paul addresses the fans with a sincere, “Don’t know where we’d be without you, really,” only to have Lennon shoot back. “The Army, perhaps”; the 1965 disc finds the boys mercilessly lampooning “Yesterday” with a few loud, campy, off-key singalongs, while Lennon thanks fans for sending gifts such as “playing cards made out of knickers”; in ’66, portions of the frivolity sound a bit like “Revolution 9,” while a snippet of a prayerful tune titled “Orowayna” foreshadows the choral sound of the Beach Boys’ Smile project.

The 1967 greeting is highlighted by the tune “Christmas Time is Here Again,” along with various spoofs and send-ups of the BBC; 1968 features special guest Tiny Tim singing a bit of “Nowhere Man” in his shrill falsetto, while John Lennon recites a poem titled “Jock and Yono,” where he tellingly describes his budding relationship with Yoko Ono by saying, “…they battled on against overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends.” George Harrison sounds weary and distracted, and when he laconically thanks “…our faithful, beloved fans…who have made our life worth living,” the sarcasm fairly drips from the grooves. The final installment in 1969 is dominated by a discussion between John and Yoko held while walking through their Tittenhurst Park estate, while Paul McCartney contributes a simple, acoustic holiday ditty, as he did in 1968. (The 1968 and 1969 recordings are the only ones that are two-sided discs, as they run the longest. Both were compiled and edited by disc jockey Kenny Everett.)

Included with The Christmas Records is a 16-page booklet with recording notes and copies of the Beatles Fan Club Christmas newsletters that were included with the original flexi-discs. It’s a nice little package that is certain to please “Beatle People” everywhere, and a lighthearted reminder of the fun and warmth that the Fab Four brought to their fans.

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