Monday 27 December 2010

The Beatles "Christmas Fanclub Flexi-Discs" (1963-69) (News, Views and Music 85)

The Beatles “Christmas Fan-Club Flexi-Discs” (1963-69)

The Beatles and Christmas – they seem to go awfully well together don’t they? As well as turkey and cranberry sauce, Mistletoe and Wine (but not the godawful Cliff Richard song) and Spice Girls and dodgy merchandise in fact. Even last year it was like old times, thanks to the Beatles remastered sets being the ‘in’ present for the musical community and various tie-in programmes by schedulers looking to keep people inside listening to their radios and watching TVs rather than outside calling on Aunty Bertha. But this year – nope, there’s nothing, even with it being John Lennon’s double anniversary and by the look of the schedulers it will be a Kinky Kristmas with a touch of Rolling Stones instead, for possibly the first time since 1964 and ‘You Really Got Me’. But we at the AAA can’t possibly let a Christmas go by without at least some mention of the fab four, so for this week’s Christmas special we are looking at the Beatles’ Christmas Flexi-discs, given out for free to members of the Beatles fan club between 1963 and 1969. Now, we understand that many of you won’t have heard these discs - barring a ‘remix’ of the ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ song found as a B-side on the ‘Real Love’ single of 1994 – so we’ve gone for a bit more description than is usual in our reviews and hope that, one day, when they’ve milked everything else, Apple will put these recordings out for sale too.

We’re also going to put these discs back in context, letting you know what else the band were recording and releasing at the time (despite their ‘snowy’ sound, these recordings were nearly all made in September!) Some of our regular non-Beatles readers might think we’ve gone a bit doo-lally reviewing what are in the main bits of speech rather than music (in fact, its arguably the snippets of music that work less well on these recordings), but we at the AAA think these recordings are an integral part of the Beatles franchise, a kind of in-joke between band and fans that did much to cement their special relationship throughout the 1960s and a useful treasure trove for the sociological and musical influences of the band in each period. After all, can you imagine The Spice Girls sending out a disc of chat to their fans for free, or using them to make comments about the Vietnam war or spoofing leading figures and programmes of the day?...Also, as every Beatles fan knows, you can chart their career trajectory superbly by following their records in order (the only group you really can), from the Merseybeat to the psychedelic eras and back again to the Rooftop gig. But the Christmas fanclub discs let you do the same with just sound, tracing the fab four from edgy but shy musicians to the four most famous people in the world, changing their priorities and conversations as a result. And where else can you hear George Martin putting his background as a comedy producer to good use on a Beatles record? (Well, ‘You Know My Name (Look Up My Number) since you asked, but these records came first).


(#1 single that xmas = I Want To Hold Your Hand, #1 album = With The Beatles)

“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Steven, as the slow ray roundabout, deep and crisp and crispy, brightly shone the boot last night on the mosty cruel, Henry Hall and David Lloyd, Betty Grable too” “This is John speaking, with his voice” “I’d love to reply [to my birthday cards sent by] everyone, but I just haven’t enough pens” “Stop shouting those animals!” “Thankyou to everyone, especially the ones that paid the subscription” “Mickey the red-nosed Ringo has a very shiny nose, when everybody picked it...”

The first Christmas disc is much more ‘normal’ than the other six and find the Beatles right at the eye of storm that in 14 months and a ‘really gear year’ has seen them go from releasing their first single to having two #1s on the trot (#3 if you use the NME chart which counts Please Please Me), appearing at the Royal Variety Show and becoming a household name in the UK. In fact, all the other discs try so hard to say something new to avoid repeating this one – after all, pop stars didn’t last longer than a year in those days and recording this in September 1963 the band probably never expected to have to come up with another one. As on the music in this period, it’s Lennon who very much takes the lead here, speaking first and dominating a rather scatterbrained version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ with typically Lennonish wit. Paul and George aren’t far behind (in fact George thrives on these earlier, more scripted recordings where each Beatle gets a turn and he doesn’t have to compete with Lennon’s wit or McCartney’s confidence), although Ringo is rather subdued and clearly still feeling his way as a ‘new’ member of the band (he even starts his speech with that sentence and its clear the others aren’t keeping as quite during his segment as he does on theirs! This will all change by 1966, although Paul’s interruption may be an attempt to make him feel part of the band rather than to take the mickey out of him), a status he held pretty much until his ‘breakthrough’ in the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ film.

Along with all their other important non-musical recordings of 1963 (press interviews, the London Palladium, the Morecambe and Wise show and especially the Royal Variety performance) the Beatles come across as an aural Marx Brothers, with a great deal of cheeky banter unheard of from the stars of the 1950s (even Elvis called everybody ‘sir’) – especially the whistling of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ after mentioning the latter, a very daring act for the day. The fab four also make no attempt to hide the fact that they’re all reading a script –although they don’t yet have the confidence to draw attention to that fact like the far more road-weary Beatles of 1964 (listen out for John talking about his birthday, McCartney’s laugh and Lennon’s reply that he’s ‘trying to forget it’ – Lennon hadn’t yet had his birthday when this was recorded!) There’s also a mention of the key Beatles theme of 1963 – jelly babies, famously thrown at the band onstage during most of the year. Listen out for the way the band, or Paul at least, tries to cover up the fact that they don’t want to be hit by them anymore with a joke about how the Beatles still like ‘chocolate dreams and peppermint creams and dolly mixtures...’

Perhaps the most significant part of the whole record is Paul discussing what the Beatles like doing best. His answer of ‘recording’ would probably not have been echoed by any other groups of the day (especially ones who had become famous enough to appear on such prestigious bills as they had) and yet for Paul to answer ‘recording’ at the time of their second LP when the band hard to work so hard and under such pressure they must have been sick of the four walls of Abbey Road Studio no 2 shows that, already, the group were treating everything else as a distraction away from their ‘proper’ work of making records (the Beatles had that day been recording songs for With The Beatles, most likely ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ ‘Little Child’ and ‘All I Wanna Do’).

Above all, despite the awkwardness of the setting and the fact that the script has clearly been written in a hurry and ‘modified’ by the four, the 1963 fanclub discs is one of the more successful ones of the seven, with the band charismatic and genuinely funny. Above all, this disc is very successful at setting out the character types that will be explored more fully in 1964’s feature film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – in fact, so closely, that I suspect that scriptwriter Alun Owen was given this record to study (John as the witty one, Paul as wanting to please, George as quiet and Ringo as a loner). There’ll be lots more of this on the 1964 record...


(#1 single that xmas = ‘I Feel Fine’, #1 album = Beatles For Sale)

“Thanks all of you who bought my book, thankyou folks for buying it it was very handy, and there’ll be another one out soon it says here, I hope you’ll buy that too, it will be the usually rubbish but it won’t cost much, you see, that’s the little bargain we’re going to strike up” “Did you write this yourself?” “No, it’s somebody’s bad hand-wroter” “We had a quiet time making it – actually, we didn’t, we had a great time making it” “We start shooting [Help!] in February, this time its a gonna be in colour” “Yeah – green!” “So much travelling, but you’ve stayed loyal – haven’t you?” “Those airport receptions really knocked us out great man, fab”

The big Beatles theme of 1964 was experimentation – not to the psychedelic years, perhaps, but enough to make the sound effects of footsteps at the start of this record and the counterpointed and quite unlistenable kazoo/piano medley seem entirely normal in context. It somehow fits the Beatles of late 1964 who in their day jobs are already overloading the Abbey Road mixing desk to get a distorted sound on ‘Hold Me Tight’ and adding feedback to the start of that year’s Christmas single ‘I Feel Fine’. The Beatles are also more confident than in 1963, as befits a group who have become the best-selling UK artists for a second year running and have conquered America, knowing that they can get away with pretty much anything in this part of their careers and have it turn into gold (such as revealing that these Christmas links are scripted!) That’s why somebody drops something loudly behind Ringo’s part without going for a re-take and John and George both go badly off script (Harrison because he mis-reads the script and Lennon because he’s mercilessly spoofing the banality of his part). Lennon even gets an in-joke in about ‘Beatle Peedles’ (the German slang for ‘penis’ as adopted by the Beatles in Hamburg when people laughed at their name) which somehow got through the censor! (Paul stays in German mode until the end of the piece!)

The band are still enjoying themselves taping these ‘little messages’, perhaps because they’ve had such a busy and frenetic year that it seems like one hell of a lot longer since the 1963 tape was recorded (Paul may be joking, but listen to the way he quotes ‘Love Me Do’ as being ‘many years ago now, or so it seems’... Lennon, too, seems to blanch when reading from his script about ‘In His Own Write’ that he ‘writes them in my spare time’; actually the book dates from pre-1963 give or take two stories and Lennon didn’t have time to write any more which is why the follow-up ‘A Spaniard In The Works’ is a much tougher and less fluent book all round), which is surprising given how jaded and tired both the compositions and cover of that year’s Xmas LP ‘Beatles For Sale’ appears to be. Which is surprising because the band must have been exhausted by the time of this recording – as Ringo neatly puts it, ‘we’ve been to Australia and New Zealand – And Australia, and New Zealand!’ (interestingly, threre’s no mention of that years’ biggest successes – in the USA – anywhere on this record).

Back when this message was taped, however (in September-October time, remember), the key Beatles project of the year was undoubtedly ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. We know now, of course, that the world was ready for such a pioneering, character-driven ‘musical dialogue’ in 1964, but the band and the film company all had their doubts and the relief the band felt at its success is easy to hear. Note how George and Ringo can’t seem to talk about anything else, with the excitement about being ‘movie stars’ still in their voice (a fact forgotten to modern reviewers of the Beatles is that, although the band were always confident of making successful and popular records if left enough to their own devices, they weren’t confident at all about Brian Epstein’s extra-curricular ideas, which weren’t part of the original Beatle gameplan).

Overall, the 1964 fanclub record is a bit more knowing and cynical than the first - which is befitting to a band who were already that far through their career – but it does a successful job of acknowledging the trust fans still have in the band and sounding like their 1963 selves without repeating anything (just like their records in 1964 in fact!)


(#1 single that xmas = Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, #1 album = Rubber Soul)

“Now it looks as though we’re here to stay, we believe in Christmas day” “Last year we were here, round the same old mike, in the same old studio” “Same old guitar, same old faces” “Stay tuned in – its a five-way cycle” “Down in Vietnam, (river) look at all those (shining) bodies floating in the river Jordan” “It’s been a big year for of our biggest years since we can remember...and we can remember a lot of years” “And don’t forget the old and the new, some folks blue some votes green, don’t take any notice of them, it’s an all-white policy in this group!” “This is Johnny Rhythm just saying goonight to yese all and god bless yese” “Oy Basher – have you turned it off?!”

By Christmas 1965 the biggest event in the Beatles’ collective lives was drugs. Ever since Bob Dylan turned the Beatles onto marijuana in a hotel room (he’d misheard the line ‘I Can’t Hide’ in ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ as ‘I get high’ and assumed the Beatles were users – the four of them were too proud to admit they weren’t, although it was poor Ringo who was badgered into trying the drug first, a point that often gets overlooked in Lennon biogs) their music had changed, although the biggest evidence is in their speech. What was verging on the free-form Goon-like pun on words in 1963 and 1964 has now become a barrage of often unintelligible chatter, with the recording having less thought than ever before for the listeners at home. Which is not to say this fanclub is disc is bad – they were originally given away free after all, even if ironically they’re some of the most expensive records around today – it just takes you a bit longer to work out what’s going on. A bit like the band’s 1965 records, in fact.

What’s most interesting about this record is that, for the only time on these discs, the band are spoofing one of their own records. That record is ‘Yesterday’, undeniably their most famous song of that year (even if it was never anything more than an album track on side two of ‘Help!’ in Britain) which on paper looks like an obvious choice – except that McCartney for one was always deeply uncomfortable about being the only Beatle on it and all but kept it out of the band’ setlists in case it angered the others (Lennon, for one, always had a hangup about the song, spoofing it endlessly on the session tapes for his solo albums, one of which can be heard on the Lennon Anthology). Intriguingly, too, its George not Paul taking the lead on this song (Paul is there, but he’s singing an uncharacteristic falsetto part which is harder to hear) and this recording is, in fact, the only band performance of the song The Beatles ever gave. Is this Paul’s suggestion, getting the band to join in on their most recognisable song of the year, or a suggestion from up high given the disrespectful nod they felt it deserved?

The second point to make is how less seriously the band are taking their duties on this record – and it is clearly a ‘duty’ by now rather than a bit of fun done for fans on the side. John and George start the talking but quickly run out of things to say and veer into Lennon doing a Scottish parody of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Paul and Ringo then have a go, before telling us how things are the same as on the last fanclub record and even end up veering into the Four Tops’ ‘The Same Old Song’. The band sound less like a ‘group’ here too, albeit not one at each other’s throats just yet. Lennon, speaking in one of his ‘moody/sarky’ voices best heard on the 1969 records, suggests the band sing ‘We’ll gather lilacs in an old brown shoe’, simply because it’s one of the daftest and unlikeliest things the band might do, but Ringo is taking things seriously, adding ‘yes – that’s out of copyright’! That might be because there’s less of a ‘script’ this year – if there is a script, the Beatles stop reading from it as early as the second sentence – but its noticeable that the interruptions they keep giving each other cause less giggling then before. Interestingly, Ringo dominates the record like never before (or after come to that) – perhaps he was having a particularly forceful day that day, was getting bored behind his drum kit given the amount of time the Beatles records took to make at that time or perhaps its because of his higher profile on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’

Thirdly and most remarkably, this record is The Beatles’ biggest political statement to date. Much is made in the American press about how The Beatles had the audacity to come to 1960s America and talk about the JFK/Eisenhower policies they felt were wrong (particularly the Vietnam War and Civil Rights) at a time when most American groups’ hands were tied. Both are mentioned on this record, which must have come as a shock to the mainly British fans in the fanclub in 1965, with Paul of all Beatles interrupting Lennon’s Scottish sketch to ad lib ‘down in Vietnam’ and ‘look at all the bodies floating in the river’. The fanclub message then veers back to normality, with the band thanking their fans in the forces – which sounds like a directive from on high given how much the Beatles hated and campaigned against war – but listen to Lennon’s diatribe against the army and South America in general on the fade. Referring back to his earlier ad lib about how its ‘raining in Munich’, he adds that the record is dedicated to ‘the people in BAORC, a lot of us here want to wish a lot of you there...’ and the weather’s perfectly alright, thankyou’, as if he can’t bring himself to say what he’ supposed to say. His angry sarcastic response too, after spoofing the new year idea of something borrowed, something blue, that ‘its an all-white policy in this group’ is also clearly directed at the attempts by the army to disrupt the Civil Rights movement (under orders from Eisenhower, of course). This is one of the most direct attacks on politics by any Beatle on any social system and its all the more surprising given that its on a fanclub record to mainly British citizens who weren’t meant to play the record more than once (or perhaps that’s why Lennon thought he could get away with it...)

Note – George Martin took pains to record every single moment of the Beatles’ recording session for the George Harrison track ‘Think For Yourself’ (released on the ‘Rubber Soul’ album that Christmas) in case the band said anything usable for that year’s record. They never did, but the banter of the band messing around is just as good as any of these records and let’s hope Apple see their way to releasing it sometime soon as well (the only extract that did get used is a rehearsal for the chorus part of the song’s line ‘and you’ve got time to rectify all things that you should’, used in the ‘yellow Submarine film when the Sgt peppers band is being ‘defrosted’).


(#1 xmas single = Strawberry Fileds Forever/Penny Lane, #1 album = A Collection of Beatles Oldies But Goldies)

“Everywhere it’s Christmas, everywhere is song, London Paris Rome and New York, Tokyo Hong Kong” “Everywhere it’s Christmas, at the end of every year” “Meanwhile, high in the Swiss Alps, two elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese” “At the same time as this in the Captain’s mess aboard the HMS Tremendous, a toast is being proposed” “There are no more matches left Podgy” “Then buy some, Jasper old friend, make a list and afterwards we’ll go to the shops and buy matches and candles and buns”

The odd record out, in more ways than one. For starters, this is a collection of psychedelic sketches, taking in elements from old films, music hall songs and quiz games, quite unlike anything else The Beatles ever did (though there are some similarities with Magical Mystery Tour and the 1967 flexi-disc). Secondly, there isn’t a single Beatles reference in the whole record – and very few musical ones comes to that. There’s also not a single reference to anything happening in the outside world –quite unlike 1965 that spends more time talking about Vietnam than Christmas festivities, perhaps showing how insular The Beatles had become in the post-touring world, even with all the mentions of other countries. It’s perhaps worth mentioning too that The Beatles had been apart as a group during the last few months of 1966 – John filming ‘How I Won The War’, Paul making the soundtrack for the ‘Family Way’ film, George was in India learning how to play the sitar and Ringo was, well, not up to much to be honest. This fanclub disc would have been one of the first things the band did on their return (at the same time as recording Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane and When I’m 64) and, unlike 1965, it sounds fun again – incomprehensible fun at times, but fun at least. The Beatles are also working together as a group (as opposed to talking over each other) for the only time on these records. In retrospect it’s amazing that there even was a fanclub disc in 1966 – the Beatles had given up touring, making films and making television appearances and yet they still couldn’t find it within their hearts to stop their traditional gesture of goodwill to their public, a fact that says a lot about The Beatles in their middle years.

This 1966 record is, in many ways, a preview of Sgt Peppers. The Beatles hadn’t come up with the Victorian band concept yet and were still very much working towards their initial concept of the album as a group of childhood memories (an idea scuppered when George Martin took the decision to release ‘Fields’ and ‘Lane’ as a single). This fanclub disc is effectively the two ideas combined, with some forgotten music hall songs linked by snatches half-remembered from black and white films and a sense of time past. Listen out too for the way each of the sketches (as opposed to chats for the first time) blend into each other (even though there often isn’t a link between them that we can see) and the fact that, not once on this disc, are The Beatles performing as themselves. However, the biggest influence on this record is Paul McCartney’s beloved tape machine, a magnificent invention which allowed the Beatles in turn to fool around making music and speech at home without the danger of taking up studio time (McCartney even did a spoof radio show called ‘Unforgettable’ around this same period, made up of tape loops and old records played at the wrong speed, a gift given only to the other Beatles and Mal Evans and sadly now lost in the mists of time, although his final audio verite masterpiece – Carnival of Light – still exists in the vaults and beats ‘Revolution 9’ for weirdness two years early according to the few who’ve heard it ).

Up first on the fanclub record is a rather odd song, ‘everywhere its Christmas’, which is reminiscent of the next year’s ‘Your Mother Should Know’ but lacking the usual Beatles sincerity (surely the main reason why this song didn’t enter fan consciousness in the same way that 1967’s theme song ‘Christmastime Is Here Again’ did). As expected from the late 1966 vintage, Paul takes the lead on this song – unlike previous efforts Lennon’s wit makes cameo appearances rather than dominating proceedings, just as on The Beatles releases from this era on. Next up is a Beatle choir with Ringo taking a rather wobbly lead (conducted by a ‘bearded man in glasses’, not that we ever meet him). A segue from Paul’s surprisingly good yodelling leads into Lennon talking to himself in a series of Goonish voices at a medieval party that seems to end badly (Lennon cried ‘is there a doctor here?’, although we never hear why). George then turns things on its head by visiting the Navy Lark (or the nearby HMS Tremendous at any rate) where – in the best gag of any of these records – the navy drink a toast to the Queen before being interrupted by a ghostly, mocking voice (memories of dead navy veterans, perhaps, or just Lennon making a funny noise?)

The best remembered segment of the record is the tale of Podgy the Bear and Jasper, a dialogue reminiscent of Eccles and Bluebottle from the Goon Show. Paul is the narrator and John and George do a good job at the funny voices (very good in fact, you wish they’d done more on these records) and the script is...well...what on earth can I say about the script? It beats Magical Mystery Tour for surrealism a full year early and sounds like a cross between In His Own Write and Sesame Street (who had a similar gag about a kid remembering ‘20’ by counting what he sees as he goes to the shops – only for him to walk proudly into the shop and ask for ‘20’ without remembering what it was he wanted)

Even this segment makes a bit more sense than McCartney’s butler to Lennon’s count though (John will re-create this voice for the 1967-recorded-but-unreleased-till-1969 B-side ‘You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)’ Paul’s made-up-on-the-spot tune isn’t one of his best and you can’t tell whether Lennon and McCartney are spoofing the old days or not (a song title like ‘Please don’t bring your banjo back, I don’t know where it’s been’ and the strangely acidic comment ‘they were all melody weren’t they?’ sound like a spoof, but the reminiscences about the old days sound genuine). All that’s left is for Beatle roadie Mal Evans to add that ‘everywhere it’s Christmas’ on his greatest starring role on a Beatles record (bar the cameo as a diver in the ‘Help!’ film, playing the anvil on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, activating the alarm clock on ‘A Day In The Life’ and his appearances on the next two xmas record anyway! ) and that sodding tune again. Well, at least it’s better than ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’!


(#1 single that xmas = Hello Goodbye, #1 album/EP set = Magical Mystery Tour)

“An audition will be held at 10am on Wednesday the first in the fluffy rehearsal room, bring your own” “Get one of those for your trousers, get one of those for your hair” “Sitting with me in the studio tonight is a cross-section of British youth” “In the recent heavy fighting near Blackpool, Mrs G Evans of Solihull was gradually injured” “You’ve just won a trip to Denver and five others – and you’ve also been elected as independent candidate for Paddington!” “Theatre hour is brought to you tonight from the arms of someone new” “O-U-T spells out” “When Christmas time is over and your bonnie clegg a strew, I’ll be bristling to you listener, all the best from mae tae you”

The 1967 flexi-disc is, like Magical Mystery Tour, a sort of cross between what’s immediately gone before and what went by in the good ole days. Like Tour it’s half hip psychedelia and half nostalgia, with a proper song this time around (if still not one of the greatest – if only Lennon had written Happy Xmas (War Is Over) at this point these discs might be better remembered than they are!) Which, again like Tour, means that the kids are put off by the references to times past and the adults are put off by the sheer amateurishness of it all that the kids find so delightful. That’s why one minute we get a spot-on spoof of the sort of teatime television entertainment only those who’ve grown up in the music hall could love and the next we’ve got a (fairly) straight rendition of a made-up-on-the-spot song ‘Plenty Of Jam Jars’ that sounds so like the real thing it’s just not funny.

First of all, the song. ‘Christmastime Is Here Again’ sounds like a McCartney song to me, despite being credited to all four Beatles. It shares some distant DNA with the more trivial Macca songs of the period, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, which prove once again that what rock and roll gained the advertising jingle industry lost. But ‘Xmas’ makes more sense in context – its repetitive and simple tune and confusing lyrics (‘O-U-T spells out?!’) will never be your favourite Beatles song by any means but so many Christmas songs out there sound like that one and I bet they took longer to write than McCartney did this one. What’s interesting too is the way the song splits up the action – The Beatles Anthology made a lot of questionable choices but putting this song ‘back together’, as it were, was one of their better ideas as it stands up rather better all in one go than heard in bits (how typical, then, that one of that project’s better ideas was relegated to a B-side and wasn’t on Anthology proper). The song also offers each Beatle in turn a go in the spotlight – something the band hadn’t really down since 1964 and yet happens a lot in this period (the four way credit on ‘Flying’, for instance), with McCartney sounding most at home on this simple pop song (because it’s his?!)

As is fitting for the close cousin of ‘Tour’, the sketches are as zany and as psychedelic as in 1966, but somehow there’s an earthyness in them too which wasn’t really around in late 1966/early 1967 (after all, ‘Tour’ was about a travelling holiday mainly franchised by OAPs!) This time around the sketches aren’t as funny or surreal and attack real life a lot more, albeit with the same old Goonish logical humour. The first sketch finds the Beatles meeting a gatekeeper – played, once more, by Mal Evans – and claiming they ‘have permission, oh wise one’. Is this a dig at the establishment of places like Abbey Road where – before the Beatles turned up – the whole staff wore scientist’s lab coats? Lennon’s segue into a rehearsal hall re-uses the marching feet sound effect last heard on the 1964 xmas disc (and by using it in such a new context it really shows off how much has changed in three years) is one of the funniest on the disc and its a shame more room couldn’t be found for Lennon’s bored stage director (not unlike the director in ‘Hard Day’s Night’) The sketch then has the director assuming that the actor – Paul, asking for an amp to plug into – is in fact giving his lines, a typically Lennonish joke that plays with fantasy and reality. In fact Lennon’s on sparkling form throughout for the first time in a couple of years and indeed he’s – temporarily as it turns out – in a good place having met Yoko and given up many of the drugs that caused him to go lethargic in 1967 (alas he’s given up for stronger, harsher drugs which make him, well, stronger and harsher in this period and into 1968) This recording is almost the first evidence of this ‘new’ Lennon – beloved b-side ‘I Am The Walrus’ beating this record into the studio by a number of days.

The best evidence of goonish humour, though, comes from Paul, who prefixes his and John’s sketch of ‘a cross section of British youth’ (actually one person and a ‘sir’ at that – clearly television fails to represent it’s youth of the sixties just as it continues to today) with a string arrangement straight out of Peter Sellers’ ‘Songs for Swingin’ Sellers’ album (which George Martin produced). George is up next with a request for a made up song by ‘the Revellers’ (amazing, really, that that name hasn’t been taken up a Beatles tribute band yet!) which is delivered by the band in such a dreary way it’s like the worst Christmas party you’ve ever had, with lots of drunken and off-key relatives gathered round the piano (although arguably McCartney’s Christmases in his youth were all like this – see the James Paul McCartney TV special for more evidence of the Macca clan in festive mode)

The best sketch is saved till near-last, with George a hapless contestant on a quiz show delivered by John in one of his silliest voices. George gets a round of applause just for knowing his age and eventually wins ‘a trip to Denver and five others’ – daft enough as it is – before finding he’s been elected as ‘candidate for Paddington’. The merging of politics and television was a key theme of the 1960s, from the Kennedy vs Nixon television debates to the assassination of JFK and Nixon’s own election later in the decade but even as early as 1967 the Beatles (who, after all, weren’t trained in writing this sort of thing) have already seen through the facade (and seen first hand Wilson’s hilarious attempts to win the Beatles onto his side during his UK election campaign of 1966) and decided that the ultimate result of all that glitz and glamour isn’t right for the job and given it away in a quiz show based on pot luck.

Ringo then gets a late sketch on his own, based around Armchair Theatre – a big show in it’s day - which is too short to make much impact. In fact, it’s cribbed from the plot of ‘Help!’ and even uses that film’s musical cue of edgy, tensed strings. It’s left to George Martin to wrap things up - strangely, making his first vocal appearance on a finished Beatles recording – but wait, Lennon’s not finished, delivering an atmospheric, cod-Scottish ending which is far more successful than his previous attempt. Lennon even brings the Beatles story full circle, ending his song with the words ‘from mae tae you’ (the title of the Beatles’ fourth single for those who don’t know) to the tune of Auld Lang Syne (nostalgia for the band’s early days is a big theme of the year, what with the life from third single ‘She Loves You’ during the fade of ‘All You Need Is Love’).


(#1 single that xmas = none, #1 album = The White Album)

“Once upon a time there were two balloons called Jock and Yono, they were strictly in love, bound to happen man” “They battled on against overwhelming oddities including some of their beast friends” “Well if you ask me I think it’s insane!” “Private line? I’ve been on this line for two years!” “God bless you, Tiny Tim”

The 1968 record is hard going and all but sums up the state of the group after the seemingly endless and band-breaking sessions for The Beatles’ White Album – John only has eyes for Yoko and barely mentions Christmas, Paul is trying to come up with a bouncy song but his heart clearly isn’t in it, George is hardly there and covering up his absence with guest star Tiny Tim (just as he ropes in Eric Clapton and Billy Preston to help out on the band’s records) and Ringo is left talking to himself. The only reason these four very different extracts go together at all is thanks to some clever editing from Radio One DJ Kenny Everett (who, incidentally, celebrated his 24th birthday the very day this sixth fanclub disc came out). The links include some very late-60s local radio links, snatches of classical music and speeded up versions of then-new songs from the White Album – which sounds deeply odd, to be frank, not because they’ve been speeded up but because this is the one time the Beatles recycled some of their material (although to be fair it’s probably Kenny’s idea).

The biggest shock of all to those of you who are listening to these discs in order is that the Beatles, still just about working together on the 1967 fanclub record, have splintered into four very distinct and separate groups and no amount of fast-editing can disguise that fact. The only exception to that is Paul and Ringo who, presumably, are meant to be hard at work on the pair’s songs ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road’ rather than messing about with tape recorders (listen out for the handclaps at the end of Paul’s song – a key part of many ‘White Album’ McCartney songs). Unusually it’s Ringo who introduces the disc – the first time its neither John nor Paul, although a point that not many fans pick up on is that Ringo mentions himself by name, twice – the first time any of The Beatles have done this since the 1964 record, assuming that by now the whole world knows what each Beatle sounds like. Chances are Ringo is either being funny or filling in time while looking for something to say, although I’m tempted to speculate that at this stage (late 1968) Ringo has only just rejoined the group following his temporary sabbatical, looking at Octopuses’ underwater pebble gardens while away on holiday no less.

Paul doesn’t bother introducing himself, perhaps because the made-up-on-the-spot song he gives us this time around (usually given the fan-name ‘Happy New Year’ is just so Macca in it’s every poor, a kind of acoustic bastardisation of Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird and Paul’s song for Mary Hopkin ‘Goodbye’. The lyrics are as trite as ever for these Christmas recordings, but the tune is quite special and is strong evidence for the idea that Paul had the potential to come up with a million seller every single time he sat down with his piano or guitar. Interestingly, this is the only song out of the four or five heard on these records that digs past the festive season to have Paul wishing his fans a happy everything ahead in 1969: ‘happy Easter, happy Autumn, happy Michelmas’. You have to say, though, that the usually bouncy Paul doesn’t sound all that happy singing this song – presumably because the Beatles, deep in the midst of sessions for the White Album, really aren’t that happy a group to be in any longer. Even more than the others, it’s Paul whose missing the banter and bonhomie of the earlier records and, without the other Beatles present (barring Ringo, briefly), he doesn’t even try to chat to us but writes us a song instead. Fans know about the Beatles split well and how badly the White Album sessions broke up the band, but it’s this simple recording that brings that fact home more than any of the actual tracks from that album.

Lennon, meanwhile, isn’t even giving a thought as to what the other Beatles are doing. Typically Lennon, his contribution to the 1968 festive period isn’t even about the fans but about himself. Unlike many fans, I find his piece of self-mockery ‘The Ballad of Jock and Yono’ quite funny, with the piece full of that characteristic Lennon wordplay and devilish puns – at least until it turns sour at the end when Lennon admits that the mud-slinging against the pair stuck to them ‘slightly’ and that the couple were in love despite ‘overwhelming oddities’ including ‘some of our beast friends’, a line delivered with so much withering sarcasm it virtually points at the other three Beatles. The shock of hearing the Beatles bonhomie and joy to be alive of 1963 and 64 replaced by a piece that features one of the band attacking the other three is massive, even for those who know of the bitter fall-outs in the band around 1968 and 69. However, taken on it’s own merits, the piece is a prime example of the famous Lennon wit and actually a better idea for a song than ‘The Ballad Of John and Yoko’ (although that’s an overlooked song too that would be better liked had it been an album track not a single), so it’s a shame Kenny Everett chose to break the composition up into several parts. Lennon can’t have been amused, either, by Kenny’s loud yell of ‘cut!’ at the end of the most wearing part of the dialogue or the distortion effects used on his voice to make it sound more ‘interesting’!

The biggest shock of all, though, is that George barely speaks to us, choosing instead to introduce first Mal Evans, making his third appearance on a Christmas disc (which must have come as a shock to fans who didn’t know who he was – he’s not introduced that well by George who clearly doesn’t know what to call the roadie, manager, friend, ‘fifth Beatle’ and all round nice guy Mal – interestingly his fellow ‘fifth Beatle’ Neil Aspinall doesn’t even get a mention, despite being with the Beatles for an even longer period of time) and, umm, Tiny Tim. Everyone on this site who lived through the sixties will know who Tiny Tim is, the gentle giant with the falsetto voice who looked like a quintessential hippie but mainly sang songs from the pre-war era. He was huge at the time – not quite Beatle type huge, perhaps, but pretty darn big all the same and yet his back catalogue has been all but forgotten in the CD age and the few people under 40 who remember him at all probably only know him through some Beatle cover versions. His version of ‘Nowhere Man’, a song chosen especially for the event from Tim’s back repertoire but not recorded by Tim until later, is quite a fitting one for a Christmas Beatles record – ‘Nowhere Man’ is a song for the eccentrics of the world, after all, though what Lennon thought of having one of his most autobiographical and revealing songs done in this fashion is anybody’s guess. What’s most interesting, though, is that George has all but washed his hands of the Beatles by this time, barely appearing on this record at all barring two lengthy introductions and a repeat of the ‘ain’t been round since last year’ gag from 1967, although his joke at the end (‘God bless you, Tiny Tim’, a reference to the character from Charles Dicken’s perennial festive favourite ‘A Christmas Carol’) may well be the best on the record this year. George’s sarcasm on the line ‘to the fans...who’ve made out life worth living’ is very Beatles though, dry and hurtful and a hilarious in-joke spoof of more normal and straight-laced Christmas conventions that will make fans titter into the new year and confuse the hell out of everybody else.

Unusually it’s Ringo whose doing the most to keep the spirit of the Beatles recordings alive. Even though he’d left the group barely months before this recording, it’s Ringo whose brining the zany humour to the table we’ve come to expect from these recordings. Most revealingly of all, he achieves this banter by speaking not to the other three Beatles but to himself, via the wonders of home taping. So far on these discs we’ve seen Ringo on a good day (1965) and a bad (1964), where he’s both the hero of the hour and the outcast who can’t get a word in edgeways – Ringo’s contribution for 1968 finds exaggerated versions of ‘both’ Ringos, with the downbeat, despondent ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ era meeting the current chirpy 1968 Ringo-as-played-by-Ringo-in-such-films-as-The-Magic-Christian-film head on. Like the 1966 and 67 records, this sketch is confusing to say the least, with Ringo’s lines both ways having nothing to do with what the other Ringo replies. Having said that, though, there is a kind of internal Beatles/Goon Show logic that makes this section easily the highlight of this year’s record (the best line ‘this is a private line’ ‘private line? I’ve been on this line for two years!’ It’s also Ringo who makes the only mention of the other Beatles, even if he does introduce Paul, confusingly, as ‘one of the most versatile performer’s we’ve ever had’, whose ‘come all the way from Stokely Carmichael’ while Macca vamps on the piano behind him.

Overall, then, the 1968 Christmas record is an unhappy record, just as The White Album is in the main an unhappy record, although Lennon’s sarcasm aside there’s nothing you can really put your finger on; just an overwhelming sense of malaise and tiredness.


(single still vaguely in the charts this xmas = Something/Come Together, album = Abbey Road, which is still at the bottom end of the top 10)

“It is Christmas and my special thoughts, of course, turn towards eating” “I’d like some cornflakes prepared by Persian hands and I’d like it blessed by a Hare Krishna mantra” “Good evening to you one and all, I hope you will enjoy the coming sports day of your life, it’s momma’s little boy” “I’m overwhelmed by it’s sanctuary” “The Elizabethan high wall is something I’ve always loved, you see, lady” “Everybody will just be flying around, you know” “A strange magic, you know, just slowing down the forces of our thinking” “It’s warm and nice and comfy”

This is the last ever official Beatles release during their lifetime. This is enormously important so I’ll say it again. This is the last time, ever, that the four Beatles were on the same bit of plastic with a new release in their lifetime – the last time the world at larghe heard a Beatles project without knowing it was going to be their last (‘Let It Be’ will limp out the following Easter when the fate of the world’s favourite band has already been decided and we’ll discount all the reissues, outtakes, BBC recordings and reunion recordings for now), even if they aren’t actually together in the same place at the same time. What’s heartbreaking, if you hear these recordings in order, is that it sounds like the last recording. The split was in evidence in 1968 but it’s the gaping elephant in the room on this record. The four of them aren’t even trying to sound together anymore, whether by ‘guesting’ on each other’s improvised sessions or by using fancy trick editing. Not that it’s bad by any means – like last album ‘Abbey Road’ its a final encore by a band who knew when to stop but haven’t quite got it in their hearts to tell their public yet . Lennon even ends his last fanclub record with a version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’, the very first part of the very first Beatles record, the perfect full circle. Aaah.

Otherwise, however, it’s much the same as last year, only this time Kenny Everett has got his hands on the ‘Abbey Road’ master-tapes (released in September, around the time these recordings would have been made) and this time Ringo’s giving us a song as well as Paul. John’s still nattering about his time with Yoko to Yoko – albeit in the garden of their new home in Tittenhurst this time – although here, barely weeks after the couple finally marry, the couple have rarely been happier and Lennon’s contribution takes up a longer percentage of this record than any since 1963. George is all but absent from this record again though and, unusually, Paul isn’t on this record much either, suggesting perhaps that the Beatle who finally came out and said the Beatles were over in April 1970 is already long gone by this time. And yet, like ‘Abbey Road’, there’s a kind of warm glow that comes from the four Beatles knowing that this will, more than likely, be the last Christmas record they will ever do. Just as ‘Abbey Road’ is brighter and happier than either ‘The White Album’ or ‘Let It Be’ because the four of them are consciously trying to end on a high rather than watch their magnificent career unravel before them, so here are they on their best behaviour (even if that ‘best behaviour’ involves Lennon play-acting a spoilt brat, Paul talking in funny voices and Ringo making up the strangest Christmas song you are ever likely to hear).

The record starts at it’s highpoint: Lennon, by his own admission not very comfortable around children until his son Sean born in 1975 and he has the time to do things properly, is looking after first son Julian (here aged six) and a school-friend while Paul, behind them, joins in. In fact, Paul does all the work, the young children being too shy to speak into the tape recorder and Lennon’s reply (‘and the same to you!’) is one of the silliest on any of these records. Alas this extract is only brief and it’s not long before Lennon is out wandering around his new mansion with Yoko in two, having a typical JohnandYoko rambling conversation, taking in everything from what they wish for this Christmas (‘cornflakes served by Persian hands’ for Lennon – I hope Santa was taking note that year!) and what they hope for in the forthcoming decade of the 1970s (alas Yoko’s idea that everyone will ‘just be flying around’ never happened, whether it was meant physically or spiritually!) Alas the Lennon’s 1970s weren’t peaceful or ***as it turned out, what with Nixon, America, Green cards, primal therapy and the Lost Weekend and all. Lennon’s on good form, though, with his half-genuine, half-sarcastic responses to comments about his property (‘I’ve always loved the Elizabethan high wall!’) tempered by his obvious delight in having married Yoko at last (the pair wanted to get married as early as 1968 but they had to wait for Yoko’s divorce from her second husband to come through) which is delightful even if you are one of those Yoko-bashers who give Beatles fans a bad name (his one-off shy comment of ‘lady’ and his later ‘Mrs Lennon’ are about as close as the pair came to showing their love on film tape during the Beatles days). Yoko’s spontaneous ‘agh!’ of exasperation as Lennon sings ‘Wenceslas’ over the top of her dialogue is priceless too, though, and shows not everything was happy in the land of JohnandnYoko, even as early as 1969. (rambling as she is on this section, Lennon had just asked her a question and could have waited for a reply!)

There’s so much Lennon on this record we even get a coda, with John and Yoko playing around with their new mellotron (also heard on Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ song that year) and creating a festive sequence for us. Yoko gamely tries to live up to Lennon’s nickname for her (‘mother’), but Lennon’s spoof spoilt brat is just a tad too annoying and, quite frankly, frightening for most fans to find this section as funny as it should be. Lennon’s just too convincing as he asks for toy upon toy (some fans have seen this as Lennon making up for his underprivileged childhood but if so it should be Ringo coming out with this long list – Lennon’s background was quite posh) and the record ends with Lennon still rambling ‘lots and lots and lots and lots...’ (we never do find out what Lennon is after, although its worth pointing out his flippant reference to a toy ‘man on the moon’, which sounds like an odd toy to ask for now, was very much in the news at the time some five months after the moon landings). If nothing else, at least this section is more entertaining than JohnandYoko’s ‘Unfinished Music’ series – you can even hear the genesis of the 25-minute ‘John and Yoko’ from the ‘Wedding Album’ in this piece, although thankfully the calling of ‘John’ and ‘Yoko’ is a lot shorter this time around!

Paul and Ringo are a bit more normal this year. Paul’s latest Christmas tune for us is frustratingly short which is a shame because it’s his prettiest yet, again half-Mary Hopkin and half Bob Dylan, with Paul singing in that lovely falsetto voice he’ll make his own once he starts making songs with his new wife Linda (the pair married the week before the Ono-Lennons) on a song that, given different words, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Ram’. Paul’s also the only Beatle whose remembered what these recordings are actually for - connecting with fans – and sounds the most genuine in wishing everyone a happy new year (although, alas, Paul himself will have one of the worst years of his life in 1970, what with the fallout from The Beatles and all – see ‘news and views’ no 73).

As for Ringo, his third ever released composition is very much what you’d expect a made-up-on-the-spot song to sound like, although the very Goonish way Ringo finishes the song in order to make the song rhyme is, again, the most characteristically Beatleish moment of any on the Christmas disc this year. Listen out, too, for Ringo’s witty ‘Magic Christian’ plug (the deeply odd film Ringo stars in with Peter Sellers and with a Badfinger soundtrack, released in early 1970) which involves him saying ‘happy Christmas’ over and over before gradually turning it into ‘Magic Christian’ (with some help from Kenny Everett’s tape doodling). The fact that Ringo’s innocent note to the radio DJ (‘it’s just a plug for the film, Ken, try to leave it on’) is left attached is very Beatles and somehow a very fitting end to the collection of Christmas discs, even if it is an advert for a project featuring only one Beatle! Not the best of these discs, then, by any means, there’s still plenty of magic within the grooves of the 1969 flexi-disc record which is marred only by the absence of George.

Overall, then, these seven discs take us from the Beatles’ cradle to the grave with some of the best examples around of the famous Beatles wit that could floor a politician or pressman at 10 paces and yet are still funny and sympathetic enough to leave fans giggling for hours. Although The Beatles’ reputation is pretty much secure as far as music goes (though it would have been nice to have seen the new Beatles downloads outselling the likes of ‘Chipmunk’ and X Factor rejects), their social status as a watershed for the times has been under question every year since the band broke up. More than any other non-musical document, these fan-club documents show off what a witty, knowing and above all intelligent group of people The Beatles were and whether its by turning the usual conventions on their heads by faking scripts, making up sketches or using ground-breaking linking pieces to break up the dialogue, there’s always a lot of work going on in every work despite the occasional throwaway moment. We know that Lennon, in particular, used to talk like this all the time and it’s lovely to have an extra record of the Beatles at play to go with the stylised-but-still-largely-truthful scripts for ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ So let’s hope that, someday soon, all fans will have access to this great material and we hope that, in the meantime, this article has done it’s best to reunite The Beatles with Christmas, where – more than any other time of the year – they rightfully belong.

'Rubber Soul' (1965)

'Revolver' (1966)

'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' (1967)
‘Abbey Road’ (1969)

'Let It Be'  (1970)  

'Live At The BBC' (1994) 

The Best Unreleased Beatles Recordings

A Complete AAA Guide To The Beatles Cartoons

The Beatles: Surviving TV Appearances

A 'Bite' Of Beatles Label 'Apple'

No comments:

Post a Comment