John Lennon once said he always wanted to write a good Christmas song.
Hard to believe, but as accomplished and prolific as The Beatles were as a group for close a decade with more than 300 recorded songs, they never released a holiday tune.
[Note: “Christmas Time is Here Again” was an impromptu radio jam session, but wasn’t a commercial recording.]
So, about a year after the four icons disbanded as a rock group, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono splintered away from London for a fresh new start in New York City. That’s the creative and spiritual nest of solace they would ultimately call home and remain for the duration of Lennon’s life, destined to last only another nine years. In fact, the unconventional duo never again returned again to England, not even for a visit.
During their early months, they settled down in Manhattan, where Lennon wrote a number of mediocre songs that were looked upon as his few commercial failures as a pop artist. The mishmash of largely forgettable music, some of it original and other songs blatantly purged from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention who he worked with in a somewhat disastrous collaboration, was ultimately released on the bomb of double-album, “Sometime in New York City.” This creative yet aimless period fueled by intense political activism and protest, however, included a most unusual Christmas song that was inexplicably omitted from the early 1972 album. And yet, that musical oddity would ultimately become a powerful anthem for world peace as well as a timeless melody of hope for all humanity. Cynics would even say it became one of the hallmark signature songs of the holiday season, serenading shoppers to shop and spend, hardly the original intent of the lyrics.
Like so many great works of creative alchemy, the song wasn’t particularly well-received when it was released, either by critics or the buying public. The single certainly wasn’t a hit when initially released late in 1971 inside the United States. The following Christmas, the single was released in England, where it enjoyed somewhat modest success, lofting as high as fourth in the charts. But by the mid-1970’s the song was mostly forgotten and seemingly destined as a clumsy musical footnote.
The song later appeared on a relatively obscure John Lennon collection of hits, called “Shaved Fish.” But following a stellar track record of commercial and critical successes — both with The Beatles and his hastily-assembled sidemen called the 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 old 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 traditionalists who fancied familiar Christmas music of the day weren’t about to purchase new single by one of the counterculture’s most outspoken Leftist revolutionaries. And younger fans weren’t all too enthusiastic at the notion of listening to what amounted to a corny Christmas song. Adding to its marketing troubles, the title was even controversial, opting to omit “Christ” from Christ-mas in favor of “Xmas.” After Lennon’s controversial remarks about Jesus six years earlier “We’re more popular than Jesus, now”) and his widely-banned “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” tackling the holiday supposedly dedicated to the birth of Jesus seemed like yet another unnecessary risk.
It’s easy to now see that this song was way ahead of it’s time. The song is titled “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It’s officially credited to “John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the Plastic Ono Band.” But this music and lyrics and message is emphatically Lennon’s — all his own.
Not that it’s a great song. It isn’t. In fact, it’s downright pedestrian. Amateurish even. The instrumentation is unremarkable, even rustic. There are no powerful voices nor memorable musical interludes. It’s not even arranged very well. The song has a “live” feel because that’s essentially what the recording session was — an afternoon recording followed by a quick studio mix with raw masters. Lead singer (Lennon jamming), his backup vocal (Yoko Ono — with questionable singing abilities, to put it kindly), 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 unrehearsed. So genuine.
The lyrics of this odd holiday arrangement, like no other for its time, were penned by Lennon in just a single 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 a studio, the master tapes were hastily arranged by the eccentric record producer Phil Spector, who was then at the very tail end of his staggering run as a music innovator. It’s one of Spector’s final “wall of sound” musical creations. And despite these disparate creative forces, there was utterly nothing to indicate this odd combustion of egos and sounds would eventually spawn to a song which likely endures as one of the single greatest holiday songs of our lifetimes — or more precisely the next century. Alas, now nearly half a century later its reach beyond merely the music scene 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. No song before had ever melded the traditional messages of Christmas into an anthem for global peace. While it was written in reference to ending the war in Vietnam (“War is over, if you want it.”), it’s really a desperate 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 out there don’t like that. That makes some of us uncomfortable. To the contrary, it yanks the listener out of the cozy fantasy of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams Christmas specials into the real world. 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 ourselves and the world we made.
Listeners were even challenged by the song’s lyrics., Indeed, 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. Following that dark time just before a Christmas some 34 years ago, as part of the worldwide renewal of the extensive Lennon musical catalog, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was re-released. The second time around, 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 rustic masterpiece. Take just a few moments, and listen to his message which is just as powerful now, as then.
Watch and 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. 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”) several years ago.
Oddly enough, the music on both videos is exactly the same. Nothing is different except for the imagery. But watch and listen and feel the emotional responses you have to each. The difference is staggering. That’s the real power of a great song.
Indeed, this is why “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” now stands as a timeless masterpiece. That it can bring about two extraordinarily opposite reactions. Same song. Same message. Different interpretations.
The greatest tragedy of all is that these kinds of songs need to be written at all. That music like this is so necessary to dry our tears and ignite our hope.
The horrors addressed in this song, ceaseless war and unnecessary violence, will perhaps always be with us in some fashion. They won’t be reduced nor erased easily. And that’s why we so desperately need songs like this one from John Lennon and others — now more than ever. It reminds us of what could be possible, even it just a dream.