Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Beatles - The Beatles' Christmas Album (1970)

Sooner or later everyone wants to make a Christmas record, but the Beatles, in all of the time they were together, never made one - at least not a traditional album of Christmas carols, or even a Christmas single, to sell in the record stores.  The Beatles put out traditional holiday records in their solo careers, of course, but when they were a group, they chose instead to make Christmas greeting records for members of their official fan club from 1963 to 1969; this 1970 LP compiles all seven of those records, given away to fan club members as a "farewell present."
The Beatles' Christmas Album, which has never been released commercially, simplifies matters for completist-minded collectors lucky enough to get a copy of one as a bootleg in the same way that the over-the-counter Past Masters gathers up all of their non-album tracks.  However, by assembling all of the fan-club Christmas discs in chronological order, it also documents how the Beatles started out as a teenybopper band that was the very avatar of group unity, grew more creative and daring as their music improved, and then fell apart at the end of the sixties.
The 1963 and 1964 Christmas discs are rather conventional, with the Beatles reading prepared Christmas greetings written by their press officer Tony Barrow.  They're just as superficial as Frankie Avalon or Fabian thanking millions of "number-one fans."  The Beatles were in on the joke, referring to the carefully honed image-making behind the scenes by ad-libbing their words and referring to the fact that they'd been given a script; at one point on the 1964 Christmas disc, Paul McCartney asks John Lennon if he actually wrote what he's reading.  "No," John says, "it's somebody's bad hand-wroter."  There are many enjoyable moments of levity in the early discs, like silly renditions of Christmas carols - standard pop-idol fare.  
By 1965, however, the group got more adventurous in their Christmas greetings, with original prose and nods of tribute to contemporaries like the Four Tops and Barry McGuire.  The 1966 and 1967 Christmas records, recorded in the Revolver / Sgt. Pepper era and conceived by the group without outside input, are the best; the 1966 disc "Pantomime - 'Everywhere It's Christmas'" finds the group performing skits of mad barons and cartoon-like characters marking the holiday, and the 1967 disc "Christmas Time Is Here Again" features a fake commercial (not unlike those  on the Who's The Who Sell Out) for a magical product that does wonders for your trousers and your hair, as well as humorous topical sketches involving satirical views of British radio shows and British politics ("There was a job to be done!") with the sort of cheekiness that Monty Python fans would find familiar.  The title signature themes of both discs are unfinished ditties that show a lot of wit and imagination, leaving one to wonder what they would have been like had the Beatles developed them into full songs for the Christmas season.
The 1968 and 1969 discs, however, reveal a band that can't be bothered to get together and communicate and challenge each other to make a solid Christmas record.  The four Beatles recorded their own bits separately and even threw in samples of the group's commercially available tracks.  This is still entertaining, at least on the 1968 record; John reads his absurdist verse, George Harrison hosts Tiny Tim (the singer, not the Dickens character) offering up a cover of "Nowhere Man," and Paul tosses off yet another unfinished Christmas song.  And Ringo Starr does a brief telephone skit with funny voices, playing different parts.  But the 1969 disc is almost an announcement of their breakup; Paul, George and Ringo are too disinterested to offer anything clever (and barely offer anything at all), and John and Yoko Ono take up so much space for their meaningless banter that the record is almost a Christmas disc for the Plastic Ono Band fan club.  It ends by sampling a downbeat choral rendition of "The First Noel."  Oh, the irony!  The '69 record is only worth your while for completist purposes, and if you have the LP, you'd be forgiven for skipping over it.
The Beatles' Christmas Album, which has made the bootleg rounds on both vinyl and CD, is more interesting to listen to as a whole than it is to listen to each Christmas record in isolation - and by the way, a few of the original records weren't even made available to the American fan club.  In 2017, Apple released a limited-edition box set of the original Beatles fan-club Christmas records on vinyl.  Naturally, I'd prefer that you give your money to Apple instead of forking it over to avaricious bootleggers, but The Beatles' Christmas Album is still the best way to experience the ghosts of Beatlemania past. 
(This is a special Sunday record review for this Christmas Eve; I'll return with more reviews sometime in 2018.)  

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