“I always wanted to write something that would be a Christmas record that would last forever.”
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
John & Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band with The Harlem Community Choir
Released 1 December 1971 (USA)
Writers John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Producers John & Yoko & Phil Spector
UK #4 12/72 UK #2 1/81
Though the Beatles often released singles aimed at the Christmas market, they never actually released a Christmas song, although they did record special Christmas greetings records exclusively for members of their fan club. However, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon have all released seasonal singles since the demise of the Beatles in 1970. The release of yule-tide singles has long been something of a tradition in the British record market, where bookmakers routinely take bets on which song will be Number 1 for Christmas. While seasonal singles often top the UK charts at Christmas, one has to go back to 1952 to find the most recent example of this in America, when Jimmy Boyd took ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ to the top.
So averse are the American record-buying public to Christmas songs that John Lennon’s classic ‘Happy Xmas’ didn’t even make the charts there in 1971, while his previous three singles of the same year, ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Power To The People’ and ‘Imagine’ all made the Top 20. (It may well be that unlike here in Europe, US radio stations don’t playlist Christmas music throughout December) Happily, the song fared considerably better when it was released in the rest of the world the following Christmas, and reached Number 4 in Britain in 1972 – and has charted again several times since. Apparently the song’s British release was held up for a year due to a dispute with Northern Songs (the Beatles’ and Lennon’s publishers) over Yoko Ono’s co-authorship. (ATV Music who bought Northern Songs in 1969, shortly before The Beatles split up, didn’t believe that Yoko was a ‘songwriter’ and had a similar disagreement with Paul McCartney over the alleged assistance of wife Linda on his post Beatles material such as his first solo single ‘Another Day’)
Following in the footsteps of John & Yoko’s previous politically slanted statements, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and ‘Power To The People’, ‘Happy Xmas’ encapsulated a slogan the Lennon’s had used at the height of their bed-in and peace campaign in 1969 – “WAR IS OVER! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” The duo had paid for huge advertising billboards with the slogan to be placed in 11 major cities throughout the world at Christmas 1969, and returning to the slogan two years later, they used it as the basis to the lyric of ‘Happy Xmas’. John and Yoko sang the song together with backing from the Afro-American children of New York’s Harlem Community Choir. The verse melody to the song appears to have been borrowed from the traditional folk song ‘Stewball’ (about a race-horse) as recorded by such acts as Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez.
In an interview with the BBC shortly before his death, John Lennon recalled recording ‘Happy Xmas': “We’re very proud of that, and we both sang together on that one, so it might have been our first straight ‘pop’ record together – and Phil (Spector) was the producer – and the kids singing were beautiful. It was a really nice, pleasant thing. What we wanted to do was have something besides ‘White Christmas’ being played every Christmas! But I always wanted to write something that would be a Christmas record that would last forever.” ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ is probably the finest Christmas song written in the pop-age since the 1950s, and the seasonal message that it carries was very much what John Lennon wished for the world during his lifetime – Peace and Goodwill to Mankind.
Copyright © 2001/2014 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.