A Beatles Merry Christmas
The Fab Four celebrated the holidays with jolly ad-libs for their fan club members.
If Christmas is a special time of year, then it was extra-special for frenzied Beatles fans in the 1960s in England, and onto America.
Every holiday season during the Beatles peak recording years of 1963 to 1969, members of the Beatles fan clubs were mailed a Christmas greeting from the Fab Four themselves on a phonograph record made with a thin flexible vinyl sheet, called a “flexi-disc,” inside a “square cardboard-backed envelope.”
“No other piece of mail ever looked like that…I knew exactly what it was,” remembers renowned Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn.
The Beatles typically recorded the message in October, at the end of some recording session.
The Christmas records contained clever but silly wordplay, chatty and sneaky promotions of future records and fragments of their songs. Rolling Stone (Dec. 15 online edition) captured it perfectly:
The goofy tracks captured the band at their most playful, showcasing their warm camaraderie and wit, punctuated by cheery cries of their invented Yuletide greeting: “Happy Crimble!”…These low-stake sessions emboldened them to experiment, sometimes inspiring ideas that would appear on their better-known work.
The Beatles fan club in England began in 1961 under the watchful eye of Brian Epstein and his NEMS Enterprises, which absorbed the cost. Fans paid five shillings annually for a newsletter, various memorabilia and the Christmas record.
Freda Kelly, who ran the fan club from Liverpool, naturally, was the subject of a 2013 documentary, “Good Ol’ Freda.” It seems everyone in the Beatles’ orbit got their 15 minutes.
The American club, with its $2 annual fee, also mailed the Christmas record, although it issued them on “soundcards,” cardboard-like material, which made them difficult to play.
The seven holiday messages have been repackaged by Apple Corps Lt. Records as The Christmas Records, strategically released last Friday, Dec. 15. The box set contains vinyl reproductions of each Christmas recording, with close-to-original sleeve art. The package includes a booklet of historical notes.
The First Three Christmas Records
The first few holidays messages were actually not written by the Beatles, but rather Epstein press officer Tony Barrow, who is said to have thought of the Christmas record idea in the first place. The very first “Crimble” was recorded Oct. 17, 1963, in Abbey Road’s Studio Two, right after a session for the song, “I Want to Hold your Hand.”
A mere 30,000 records were originally pressed for fan club members. Courtesy of YouTube:
The Beatles obviously enjoyed their first Christmas endeavor, because it was they who tapped on Tony Barrow’s shoulder. “It was the boys themselves who promoted me into continuing the tradition,” Barrow wrote in a memoir. “‘When are we doing this year’s ‘Crimble’ record?'”
After a 12-hour day of recording songs for Beatles for Sale, the Beatles managed to radiate energy and charm. A portion, courtesy of YouTube:
The Beatles’ third Christmas record was actually a second effort. Exhausted by endless run-throughs of Rubber Soul songs, the band failed to muster the witty spontaneity of past efforts and scrapped its first take altogether.
They tried again at Abbey Road on Nov. 8, well after midnight. Aware that the Beatles were struggling, George Martin attempted to surreptitiously record cheery chatter from takes of George Harrison’s song, “Think for Yourself.” None made it into the ’65 Christmas record, but Martin gets points for team play. It all worked out. Courtesy of YouTube:
It should be noted that the only original Christmas songs composed by band members were released after the Beatles broke up. John Lennon’s 1971 “Merry Xmas (War Is Over)” was recorded with the Harlem Community Choir and the infamous May Pang from Lennon’s 1974 “lost weekend.”
Paul McCartney released “Wonderful Christmastime” on a 1979 Wings album, Back to the Egg. According to the website Ultimate Classic Rock, the song tallies around $400,000 a year in royalties for Macca.
If it’s true, good for him.