Perhaps you’ve seen the famous photo collection of the four sisters who gathered annually for 40 years to have their picture taken. The women are admittedly lovely…but there is much more to the collection. As you scroll through the artistic, black-and-white “snaps,” you’ll not only watch these four mature and age, but you’ll also experience the story of their lives. You’ll peek in on that joyous year when one was pregnant; the darker time that the eldest seemed shielded and protected by the others; the year that one of the girls entered Harvard, and the many years they spent together in Hyannis Port. You discover days in which they smiled and times that they didn’t…or couldn’t. In 40 extraordinary photographs, you encounter a poignant family story.
For The Beatles, their “portrait”— the long-standing litmus test of “who they were and how they were” — was their annual Fan Club Christmas Record. This tradition, which began in October 1963 (before the “rattle your jewelry” Royal Command Performance or Ed Sullivan), was repeated every year until the band dissolved. No matter how fraught with plans and engagements or how fractious the four became, the disc was an inviolable ritual that always drew the lads together.
In 1963, the concept is new. The boys are excited and inspired to create the flexi-disc, despite Brian Epstein’s objections that they are “far too involved to do so.” At the close of one of their recording sessions in EMI Studios, they group around the microphone to create the first holiday recording for their fans. And at this original session, everything is easy and simple. The sound effects are basic: jingle bells and tambourines. The songs are seasonal: “Good King Wenceslaus” and “Rudolph.” And the messages are comical but heartfelt. John sings, “Garry Crimble to you, Garry mimble to you, Getty bable dear Christmas, Happy birthday! Me, too!” In 1963, each Beatle steps up to the microphone to speak to the fans — John thanking them for his October birthday presents; Paul thanking them for gifts and letters throughout the year; Ringo explaining that he’s the newest Beatle, and George thanking the dedicated Fan Club secretaries (especially “Good Ol’ Freda!”, Freda Kelly in Liverpool) for all they do. The message is witty and innocent. They are, after all, but boys.
By 1964, Beatlemania has swept the globe, and The Beatles have had quite a year making A Hard Day’s Night and its soundtrack, going to a World Tour, a North American Tour, and a lengthy U.K. Tour while also releasing a second LP, Beatles for Sale. When the Fab Four gather in EMI on 16 October 1964 to tackle the holiday record, they are “dead creased,” exhausted. So, 1964’s record — at three minutes, 58 seconds — is the shortest Christmas recording the boys will ever release. In 1964, however, the gift of four minutes from The Beatles was to be cherished. They had little time to give. This year’s record lacks the shine that radiated off of 1963’s offering, but the boys are still “bow-at-the-waist polite.” Paul thanks the fans for purchasing their records; John thanks all those who bought his first book, In His Own Write, and tactfully reminds them that a new book will soon be forthcoming (although, he says, “It’ll be the usual rubbish.”). George thanks everyone for making A Hard Day’s Night a huge success and promises them all a new film in 1965. And Ringo thanks the fans simply for being fans. But unlike The Beatles’ 1963 disc, there are no carols, no allusions to sparkly snow, no jingly tambourines, no seasonal glow. The boys do an excellent bit of public relations, but the giddy joy of Christmas isn’t there. John’s wish that the fans have “a Merry Goo Year and Crimble, maybe” says it all. The boys aren’t as wide-eyed as they once were.
By 1965, the record has become difficult to create. In fact, on 8 November, when the four assemble to record the holiday segment, they strain to be cheerful. Opening (and ending) the disc with an ad lib version of “Yesterday” that aches to be witty, they dutifully remind each other that they “have to send thank- you’s to the fans.” (John, in fact, thanks the fans for “the chewed-up bits of chewing gum and the playing cards made out of knickers.”) Then, out of nowhere, John leaps into a bizarre Scottish/Irish jibberish carol that evolves into a parody of “Auld Lang Syne,” and he mimics old radio shows of his youth, offering dedications to the troops and odd weather predictions. The disc is funny and fairly pointless. But then, Paul and Ringo, in a “give-and-go narrative” offer the most telling remarks on the whole flexi-disc. They admit, “Well, we certainly tried to please everybody this year. If we haven’t done what we could’ve done, we’ve tried.” Clearly, The Beatles’ ever-demanding workload has taken the joys out of the boys. They are scrambling to make everyone happy…yet they themselves are anything but.
1966…in the face of last year’s “failure to launch,” The Beatles decide to avoid random, off-the-cuff comments and opt instead for a written script. This planned flexi-disc is entitled, “Pantomime: Everywhere It’s Christmas,” and though the cover art screams that the psychedelic age has arrived, the show’s programming is heavily reminiscent of the 1950s “Goon Show.” One bizarre skit flows right into the next, culminating in the tale of Podgy the Bear and Jasper who — huddling rather unsuccessfully ’round “the unlit fireplace” — strike out for the store, whilst chanting their shopping list, “Candles! Matches! Candles! Matches!” Very strange. Only the initial rendition (and later, the reprise) of “Everywhere It’s Christmas” identifies this bizarre dramatic mélange as a holiday performance, though jolly numbers such as “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back,” do gin up memories of the old Christmas variety programs that the lads were required to perform during 1963 and 1965. (Listen to the song here) The Beatles of 1966 are clearly making an effort to perform for the fans, despite the fact that they have no time at all. But somehow, their attempt falls short.
In 1967, however, The Beatles (freed from the shackles of touring) are back on their game! In late November, they reunite in EMI for one reason and one reason only: to record the holiday disc for their fans. The boys arrive with well-planned scripts in hand and a new song to sing, credited to Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starkey. Entitled “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” the jingle-jangle ditty offers something that fans haven’t heard on the last two holiday records: enthusiasm! In fact, the boys have even invited in a few special “guest performers” for the occasion: Mal Evans, Victor Spinetti, and George Martin. Replete with jokes, holiday messages, funny commercials (“Get Wonderlust for your trousers! Get Wonderlust for your hair!”), and a bit of tap dancing, the ’67 flexi-disc is magical. The Beatles are once again having fun together, and it shows. Oddly, the boys, rather prophetically, chant the children’s skipping rhyme, “O-U-T spells out!” and 1967’s fan record will, indeed, be “the out” — the final holiday disc that The Beatles will ever work on together. In the future, each Beatle will record his own part individually, and the segments will then be artfully spliced into a whole. Almost as if the lads sense this somehow, The Beatles give the 1967 flexi-disc their very best.
During “the winter of [their] discontent,” 1968, The Beatles produce yet another holiday fan record, but now, individual differences preclude their working together. The boys voluntarily record holiday wishes on their own, without interaction, and later, Kenny Everett artfully weaves these bits into a finished product. Ringo opens the record, quickly followed by a singing Paul. Then John — introducing 1968’s newest “member of the band” — tells the story of “Jock and Yono” who “battled on against overwhelming oddities” and “lived hopefully ever after.” This flexi-disc is inarguably, a sign of the times. In fact, popular entertainer Tiny Tim (who had recently hit the charts with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”) is asked to sing in lieu of the once-Fab Four. He performs a singular rendition of “Nowhere Man,” and it is Tim, not The Beatles, who closes the 1968 flexi-disc with, “God Bless You All…oh, God Bless You All.” Regrettably, The Beatles’ joy in sharing holidays together has vanished into a time (as John says) “once upon a pool.”
And so, as one might expect, 1969’s holiday flexi-disc is even less joyous than the last. The liner notes admit that the boys’ greetings have been “soldered into a collective disc by the iron wrist of Maurice Cole” as the unity of those four lads from Liverpool has all but disappeared, even in the Season of Hope. Ironically, John reprises a bit of “Good King Wenceslas,” the carol that the boys offered up on their very first flexi-disc, back in 1963. But this record is “180-out” from that first group recording. John talks about foods he loves to eat and his passion for life behind “the Elizabethan high wall,” and he looks ahead to the Seventies by chatting with Yoko about what the next decade might bring. When Ringo appears, he is artfully plugging his film, The Magic Christian. And George typically chants, “Happy Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, happy, happy” while a lone Paul sings a jaunty little solo. As Harrison might’ve wryly observed, there is an abundance of “I, me, mine” in this last flexi-disc. The Beatles have now become John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
These annual holiday fan records — remarkable Christmas portraits of The Beatles — were vivid and quite telling. Unfortunately, they were very unlike the extraordinary photos of those four sisters who, for 40 years, managed to cling faithfully to one another, despite the unpredictable world. The Beatles were unable to hang on to unity, and by the end of the Sixties, they found it impossible to “come together” again.
While it lasted, however, the Beatles Christmas records represented all that was best about the group. They were, in good years and bad, happy gifts offered voluntarily to the fans, free of charge. They were a symbol of not only the group’s appreciation but of their love. And even when the boys’ devotion to one another began to fail, The Beatles’ fealty to the fans didn’t waver. Every Christmas, they found a way to tell us that. Year after year, they blessed us, every one.
-Jude Southerland Kessler