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Christmas Weirdness with the Beatles

Tap dancers, game show contestants, an injured woman from Solihull, two elderly Scotchmen munching on a rare cheese, the King's feast, Jasper and Podgy the Bear huddled around a fire.
December 22, 2011, 12:00am

Before internet transmissions girdled the globe, bands communicated news to their followers by means of a fan club. Usually, for a nominal fee (though there were extravagant ones too), each subscriber got a wallet-size official fan club membership card imprinted with name and member number, a subscription to the band’s official newsletter, the official fan club members’ merchandise order form, and a few tchotchkes.

According to Bob Spitz’s biography of the Beatles, “many thousands” of mailbags filled with applications and membership dues piled up at the Beatles Fan Club’s Liverpool office during 1963, when Beatlemania was at its most virulent. “Goodness knows how many mailbags were stolen from the rickety staircase leading to the office above the dirty bookstore,” Beatles publicist Tony Barrow wondered years later. To placate the teens and avoid litigation from their parents, Spitz writes, Barrow came up with the idea of sending out a cheap, one-sided 7-inch flexidisc to all Beatles Fan Club members for Christmas.

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On this record, the moptops sang a pisstake “Good King Wenceslas” and read from a script variously attributed to Tony Barrow and John Lennon. Lennon seems to be reading and occasionally twisting someone else’s words, judging from how bored he sounds reading about “all the gear things” that happened during “a really gear year for us.” The heaviest thing on the record is George’s joke about picking Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’s nose.

The Beatles released a Christmas record every year from 1963 through 1969, the year the band broke up. The first several Christmas flexis were recorded live, on the cheap, with the Fabs gathered around a microphone reading from a script, singing Christmas songs, and fucking around. The flexi was not the proper medium or venue for quality new Beatles songs, just five or six minutes of plastic that had to be filled up.

(The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who made sure that the boys worked like oxen during Beatlemania, also booked a now-forgotten Christmas-themed stage show. The Beatles Christmas Show, which consisted of performances by other acts managed by Epstein, Beatles sketches, and a short Beatles set,ran from Christmas Eve 1963 to January 11, 1964. According to Spitz’s book, the narrative part of the show went like this: The gorgeous Ermyntrude (Harrison), clad in fishnets and a white headscarf, is tied to the railroad tracks by the evil Sir John Jasper (Lennon) and rescued by Valiant Paul the Signalman (McCartney). The three principals are accompanied by an elf named Fairy Snow (Starr) “who leap[s] around the stage, sprinkling white confetti over the other Beatles.”)

As the Beatles transformed from an amphetamine-fueled live band to a hallucinogen-crazed studio group, their Christmas singles became increasingly elaborate productions. Where the sleeves of the previous Christmas flexis had displayed posed shots of the Fabs, a psychedelic painting by McCartney filled the cover of the band’s 1966 Christmas single, “Pantomime. Everywhere It’s Christmas.” The record within contained something like a nonsense radio drama that moves from Corsica to the Swiss Alps, where “two elderly Scotchmen munch on a rare cheese,” to the King’s feast, to Jasper and Podgy the Bear huddled around a fire in the middle of a room. The only thread connecting “Pantomime” to the previous Christmas discs is the vaudeville German accent that sometimes erupts from Lennon.

On the fifth Christmas record, the Beatles created a surrealistic parody of a BBC broadcast in which tap dancers audition, game show contestants vie, and an injured woman from Solihull calls in to request the Ravellers’ “Plenty of Jam Jars” for everyone in the hospital. These and other non-sequiturs are periodically interrupted by a new song, “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).”

The Beatles seem to have recorded their contributions to the flexis from 1968 and 1969 separately. Lennon reads “Two Virgins” and other poems; he and Yoko chat about cornflakes and goof; Paul strums an acoustic and sings; George speaks to the fans and introduces Tiny Tim, who sings “Nowhere Man”; Ringo gets in a few words. Only on the tracks from the White Album and Abbey Road that play in the background is there a suggestion of more than one Beatle in a room.

John and Yoko recorded the Christmas single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” b/w “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” in 1971, and Paul released “Wonderful Christmastime” b/w “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae” in 1979. Ringo’s 1999 Christmas album, I Wanna Be Santa Claus, included a new version of “Christmas Time (Is Here Again).” George was devoted to Jai Sri Krishna, who didn’t know from Christmas. Some dickhead murdered John Lennon, and some fucker broke into George Harrison’s house and stabbed him.