A Song for All Seasons, An Anthem for the Ages
Why “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono is the Greatest Christmas Song Written and Recorded in the Modern Era
John Lennon once said he always wanted to write a popular Christmas song.
Hard to believe, but as accomplished and prolific as The Beatles were, they never recorded a holiday tune.
So, less than a year after the legendary rock icons dissolved as a group, John and wife Yoko Ono fled London for a new start in New York City. That’s where they would remain for the duration of Lennon’s life. In fact, the duo never returned to England again, not even for a visit.
During their early months in Manhattan, Lennon wrote a number of songs that would later become one his few flops as an artist, ultimately released as the “Sometime in New York City” album. This creative period largely fueled by political activism included an unusual Christmas song inexplicably omitted from the is next album. And yet, it would ultimately become a powerful anthem for world peace as well as a timeless melody of hope for all humanity.
Like many great works of creative alchemy, the song wasn’t particularly well-received, either by critics or the public. The single wasn’t a hit when released in 1971 in the United States. A year later, the single was released in the U.K., where it enjoyed modest success, charting as high as fourth. But by the mid-1970′s the song was mostly forgotten.
The song did later appear on a relatively obscure John Lennon composition album called “Shaved Fish.” But following a stellar track record of commercial and critical successes — both with The Beatles and Plastic Ono Band — no one was quite sure what to make of the odd tune when it was first released. It certainly wasn’t a mainstream Christmas song in the traditional sense. But it wasn’t quite a political song either, not in the mold of “Give Peace a Chance” or “Imagine.” Older people who fancied traditional Christmas music weren’t about to purchase new single by one of counterculture’s most outspoken leaders. And younger fans weren’t all too enthusiastic at the notion of listening to what amounted to a simple Christmas song. The title too was controversial, opting to omit “Christ” from Christmas.
Of course, we all know now that this song was simply ahead of it’s time. The song is called “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It’s officially credited to “John Lennon and Yoko One with the Plastic Ono Band.” But this music and lyric and message is emphatically Lennon’s — all his own.
Not that it’s a great song. It’ isn’t. The instrumentation is unremarkable, even rustic. There are no powerful voices nor memorable musical interludes. It’s not even arranged very well. It almost has a “live” feel, because that’s essentially all that the recording session was. Lead singer (Lennon — essentially just jamming), his backup local (Yoko Ono – who has questionable singing abilities, which is to be kind), and a raw unrehearsed local choir struggle at times to make it all work. But then, perhaps that’s the magic of it all. That it’s so genuine.
The lyrics of this odd holiday arrangement, like no other for its time, were penned by Lennon in just a day. The basic chords were hashed on an acoustic guitar in his living room. After recording a few quick takes of the new arrangement with the Harlem Community Choir one afternoon in studio, the master tapes were hastily arranged by eccentric record producer Phil Spector, then at the very tail end of his staggering run as a music innovator. There was absolutely nothing to indicate this odd combustion of forces would eventually spawn to a song which is likely endure as the single greatest holiday song of our lifetimes — or more precisely the next century. Alas, by 2012 it’s reach has become universal.
Taking nothing away from timeless classics such as “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song,” and so many other marvelous arrangements by music greats, “Happy Xmas” has a number of defining characteristics that make it truly special. First and foremost, it was way ahead of its time. No song before had ever melded the traditional messages of Christmas into a bona fide movement anthem for global peace. It might have been written in reference to ending the war in Vietnam (“War is over, if you want it.”). But it’s really a plea to end all conflicts.
Moreover, this wasn’t a song which reinforced the traditional comfort zones of the holiday season. There are no chestnuts raging over an open fire. And some people don’t like that. To the contrary, it pulled the listener out of the cozy fantasy of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas specials. Those who heard it were shaken from the old-fashioned notion of Christmas — one which really doesn’t exist anymore, except in fantasy. The song asks us to confront reality.
Listeners were even challenged by the song’s lyrics. That’s right – challenged. To do more. To be part of change. To make it happen. “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” But the song isn’t really a lecture. Rather, it’s a renewal of hope. “Another year over, a new one just begun.”
Lennon was gunned down by a lunatic in December 1980. That Christmas some 32 years ago, as part of the worldwide renewal of the extensive Lennon musical cataloge, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was re-released. This time, it made it all the way to number two on the record charts. It’s pretty much been a staple of the holiday season ever since.
There is great power in great music. Accordingly, I’d like for you to consider the power of this masterpiece. Take just a few moments, and honor the memory of this great songwriter and listen to his message, if you will. After the all too familiar events of this day, listen. Perhaps you will hear it in a different way than you had before.
I will ask that you listen to two very different accompaniments in the video clips below. The first version may be difficult to watch. It’s heartbreaking. It’s painful. It’s essentially the message Lennon was likely trying to convey when he wrote, “For weak and for strong, The rich and the poor ones , The road is so long — So happy Christmas, For black and for white, For yellow and red ones, Let’s stop all the fight.” I suspect this message is too heavy for some around the holiday season — especially in light of the terrible tragedy of the recent school shooting. But it needs to be heard – again.
By contrast, the second arrangement is considerably more upbeat. It’s cheerful. It”s happy. The second video clip was taken from a popular television show (“ER”) a few years ago.
Oddly enough, the music on both videos is exactly the same. But watch and listen and feel the emotional responses you have to each. The difference is staggering. Then, think about that for a moment.
Indeed, this is why “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is a timeless masterpiece. That it can bring about two extraordinarily opposite reactions. Same song. Same message. Different interpretations — both entirely appropriate for the song.
The greatest tragedy of all is that these kinds of songs need to be written. That music like this is so necessary to dry our tears and ignite our hope.
The horrors that are sang of in this song, namely ceaseless war and unnecessary violence, will likely always be with us. They will never go away. And that is why we so desperately need songs like this one from John Lennon and others — now more than ever.
HAPPY XMAS WAR IS OVER — ONE (POLITICAL/PROTEST VERSION)