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 for nearly a decade, 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 controversial duo never returned to England again, not even to visit.
During their earliest months in Manhattan, Lennon wrote a number of songs that would later become one his few commercial flops as an artist, ultimately released as the “Sometime in New York City” album. This creative period largely fueled by intense political activism and protest included an unusual Christmas song that was inexplicably omitted from the 1972 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 when released, either by critics or the public. The single wasn’t a hit when initially 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. 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 other Lennon classics like “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 Christ-mas.
There are rare few moments of great television.
Last night offered us such a moment.
On CBS’ “60 Minutes,” the long lost hermit singer-songwriter Rodriguez was featured in the third segement. This was one of the most heartwarming and inspiring stories I’ve ever seen on a program that has given us many extraordinary memories over the years.
The segment told the remarkable story of a long-forgotten folk singer from Detroit, simply named Rodriguez. Forty years ago, he made two albums, both of which bombed commercially in the United States. So, Rodriguez essentially quit the music business entirely and spent the next three decades working as a day laborer. He stayed poor, living in a run-down shack outside of Detroit.
Meanwhile 15,000 miles away on the other side of the world, his records somewhow caught on in the nation of South Africa. During the fall of Apartheid, he unknowingly became a huge star, although he never received a dime in royalties nor knew of his fame in that faraway land. South Africans who knew every song and rang Rodriguez’s lyrics presumed he was dead.
But Rodriguez was very much alive.
This remarkable segment tells Rodriguez’s life story, which eventualy led to a movie which is out now called “Searching for Sugarman.” The tale of how the movie, which debuted this year at the Sundance Film Festival, came to be is just as moving emotionally — shot largely on an iPhone by a one-man production team with no budget led by a broke Swede, who heard about this amazing Cinderella tale and decided to make a film which has now changed both of their lives.
If you cherish the notion that art is not a commodity but a state of consciousness, or if you simply want to sit back and enjoy a great story, I urge you to watch this clip:
WATCH FULL “60 MINUTES” EPISODE on RODRIGUEZ HERE
Yoko Ono is probably the most reviled figure in pop music history.
But at least she got one thing right. The villainess wrongly blamed for breaking up The Beatles expressed one of the most thought-provoking explanations ever for the unwavering idolotry of The Beatles.
When interviewed about The Beatles dissolving at the height of their musical and cultural influence and the lasting impact of their odd sense of timing to abdicate the rock n’ roll throne, she quipped:
“It’s like the story of the Golden Temple: A guy fell in love with it and burned it down. He couldn’t stand the idea of it falling apart as it got older, and now the Golden Temple exists in perfect form forever. It became a myth.”
That pretty much sums up The Beatles — which stand as rock music’s golden temple.
Then, there’s the Rolling Stones — which have become rock n’ roll’s ruins.
The Beatles and Stones stand in stark contrast to the old maxim of quitting while you’re ahead. The Beatles split up in their prime. The Stones continue to record music and tour a full generation removed from the era of their most productive musical period.
Indeed, if the Stones were a temple, today they would look pretty much like Stonehenge.
Las Vegas is home to many of the best musicians and performers and in the world.
These artists play shows night after night on the Las Vegas Strip. Casino showrooms are loaded with great singers, guitarists, piano players, trumpet players, backup vocalists, string players, and drummers.
But let’s face it. Playing the same set of songs night after night gets old pretty quick. No matter how great the show is, these are supremely-talented performers with creative minds. Everyone needs to break the mold on occasion.
Incredibly, several of Las Vegas’ top musicians — virtually all of whom play the expensive headliner shows at the biggest casinos — gather from time to time and put on an impromptu jamming session. Led by longtime bandleader and trumpeter Lon Bronson, his “All-Star Band” often has a dozen or more of the best session musicians in the city on a single stage.
I mean, where else can you see a show with a ten-piece horn section in a showroom that holds a couple of hundred people?
The band sure isn’t doing this for the money.
That’s because — the show is free.
That’s right — FREE.
In a throwback to the good old days of yesteryear when Las Vegas casinos really understood the entertainment business, when they packed their lounges with some of the best acts in the world and then invited everyone to flood in and enjoy the party at no cost (aside from the added gambling revenue), Stations Casinos has decided to revive that old formula.
Writer’s Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series. What follows are the two WORST pop-rock performances I have ever seen.
SECOND WORST ROCK PERFORMANCE OF ALL-TIME — BOB DYLAN AT PLANET HOLLYWOOD IN LAS VEGAS — 2006:
It’s hard to believe, but Bob Dylan actually won a Grammy for “Album of the Year” for the rubbish that was piled onto the stage during the first and only time I ever saw him perform live in concert.
He was FUCKING AWFUL.
For the 90 or so minutes I had the misfortune of being in his presence, Dylan was disinterested. Disconnected. Arrogant. Thoroughly unprofessional in every sense. There is not one positive thing I can say about this dismal experience, except seeing the EXIT sign on my way out. That’s right. I walked out. It was a maddening waste of time and money.
The venue was Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas — an almost-perfect arena to see one of America’s last true musical icons.
Mike Paulle (the great poker writer) got us two premium seats in advance. Right before the lights when down and the show was to begin, Mike leaned over to me and revealed how special this moment was in his life — that he just wanted to be there as if completing some kind of pilgrimage. Mike was there to pray to the Zimmerman god, raise his hands high into the air, and say “thank you” to the great Dylan for all the magical music that had been given to him, his generation, and the world over five decades.
Indeed. This wasn’t so much a rock concert as it was a pagen moment of worship.
As things turned out, we ultimately discovered that we’d been worshiping a false god all along.